Posted in Politics, Populism, Social status, Sociology

Thomas Edsall: The Resentment that Never Sleeps

This post is a piece by Thomas Edsall published in the New York Times last week.  It explores in detail the recent literature about the role that declining social status has played in the rise of right-wing populism in the US and elsewhere.  Here’s a link to the original.

The argument is one that resonates in my own work posted here (see this, this, and this).  People are less concerned about getting ahead than they are about falling behind.  And one of the consequences of the degree-based meritocracy is the way it disparages people who lack the proper credentials, making clear to them that they are losing ground to the new educated elite.  Here is how Cecilia Ridgway puts it:

Status is as significant as money and power. At a macro level, status stabilizes resource and power inequality by transforming it into cultural status beliefs about group differences regarding who is “better” (esteemed and competent).

Those most affected tend to be neither at the top nor the bottom of the social hierarchy but somewhere in the lower middle regions.  Peter Hall says that

The people most often drawn to the appeals of right-wing populist politicians, such as Trump, tend to be those who sit several rungs up the socioeconomic ladder in terms of their income or occupation. My conjecture is that it is people in this kind of social position who are most susceptible to what Barbara Ehrenreich called a “fear of falling” — namely, anxiety, in the face of an economic or cultural shock, that they might fall further down the social ladder,” a phenomenon often described as “last place aversion.

This is one of the most trenchant analyses of Trumpism that I have yet encountered.  See what you think.

The Resentment That Never Sleeps

Rising anxiety over declining social status tells us a lot about how we got here and where we’re going.

More and more, politics determine which groups are favored and which are denigrated.

Roughly speaking, Trump and the Republican Party have fought to enhance the status of white Christians and white people without college degrees: the white working and middle class. Biden and the Democrats have fought to elevate the standing of previously marginalized groups: women, minorities, the L.G.B.T.Q. community and others.

The ferocity of this politicized status competition can be seen in the anger of white non-college voters over their disparagement by liberal elites, the attempt to flip traditional hierarchies and the emergence of identity politics on both sides of the chasm.

Just over a decade ago, in their paper “Hypotheses on Status Competition,” William C. Wohlforth and David C. Kang, professors of government at Dartmouth and the University of Southern California, wrote that “social status is one of the most important motivators of human behavior” and yet “over the past 35 years, no more than half dozen articles have appeared in top U.S. political science journals building on the proposition that the quest for status will affect patterns of interstate behavior.”

Scholars are now rectifying that omission, with the recognition that in politics, status competition has become increasingly salient, prompting a collection of emotions including envy, jealousy and resentment that have spurred ever more intractable conflicts between left and right, Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives.

Hierarchal ranking, the status classification of different groups — the well-educated and the less-well educated, white people and Black people, the straight and L.G.B.T.Q. communities — has the effect of consolidating and seeming to legitimize existing inequalities in resources and power. Diminished status has become a source of rage on both the left and right, sharpened by divisions over economic security and insecurity, geography and, ultimately, values.

The stakes of status competition are real. Cecilia L. Ridgeway, a professor at Stanford, described the costs and benefits in her 2013 presidential address at the American Sociological Association.

Understanding “the effects of status — inequality based on differences in esteem and respect” is crucial for those seeking to comprehend “the mechanisms behind obdurate, durable patterns of inequality in society,” Ridgeway argued:

Failing to understand the independent force of status processes has limited our ability to explain the persistence of such patterns of inequality in the face of remarkable socioeconomic change.

“As a basis for social inequality, status is a bit different from resources and power. It is based on cultural beliefs rather than directly on material arrangements,” Ridgeway said:

We need to appreciate that status, like resources and power, is a basic source of human motivation that powerfully shapes the struggle for precedence out of which inequality emerges.

Ridgeway elaborated on this argument in an essay, “Why Status Matters for Inequality”:

Status is as significant as money and power. At a macro level, status stabilizes resource and power inequality by transforming it into cultural status beliefs about group differences regarding who is “better” (esteemed and competent).

In an email, Ridgeway made the case that “status is definitely important in contemporary political dynamics here and in Europe,” adding that

Status has always been part of American politics, but right now a variety of social changes have threatened the status of working class and rural whites who used to feel they had a secure, middle status position in American society — not the glitzy top, but respectable, ‘Main Street’ core of America. The reduction of working-class wages and job security, growing demographic diversity, and increasing urbanization of the population have greatly undercut that sense and fueled political reaction.

The political consequences cut across classes.

Peter Hall, a professor of government at Harvard, wrote by email that he and a colleague, Noam Gidron, a professor of political science at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, have found that

across the developed democracies, the lower people feel their social status is, the more inclined they are to vote for anti-establishment parties or candidates on the radical right or radical left.

Those drawn to the left, Hall wrote in an email, come from the top and bottom of the social order:

People who start out near the bottom of the social ladder seem to gravitate toward the radical left, perhaps because its program offers them the most obvious economic redress; and people near the top of the social ladder often also embrace the radical left, perhaps because they share its values.

In contrast, Hall continued,

The people most often drawn to the appeals of right-wing populist politicians, such as Trump, tend to be those who sit several rungs up the socioeconomic ladder in terms of their income or occupation. My conjecture is that it is people in this kind of social position who are most susceptible to what Barbara Ehrenreich called a “fear of falling” — namely, anxiety, in the face of an economic or cultural shock, that they might fall further down the social ladder,” a phenomenon often described as “last place aversion.

Gidron and Hall argue in their 2019 paper “Populism as a Problem of Social Integration” that

Much of the discontent fueling support for radical parties is rooted in feelings of social marginalization — namely, in the sense some people have that they have been pushed to the fringes of their national community and deprived of the roles and respect normally accorded full members of it.

In this context, what Gidron and Hall call “the subjective social status of citizens — defined as their beliefs about where they stand relative to others in society” serves as a tool to measure both levels of anomie in a given country, and the potential of radical politicians to find receptive publics because “the more marginal people feel they are to society, the more likely they are to feel alienated from its political system — providing a reservoir of support for radical parties.”

The populist rhetoric of politicians on both the radical right and left is often aimed directly at status concerns. They frequently adopt the plain-spoken language of the common man, self-consciously repudiating the politically correct or technocratic language of the political elites. Radical politicians on the left evoke the virtues of working people, whereas those on the right emphasize themes of national greatness, which have special appeal for people who rely on claims to national membership for a social status they otherwise lack. The “take back control” and “make America great again” slogans of the Brexit and Trump campaigns were perfectly pitched for such purposes.

Robert Ford, a professor of political science at the University of Manchester in the U.K., argued in an email that three factors have heightened the salience of status concerns.

The first, he wrote, is the vacuum created by “the relative decline of class politics.” The second is the influx of immigrants, “not only because different ‘ways of life’ are perceived as threatening to ‘organically grown’ communities, but also because this threat is associated with the notion that elites are complicit in the dilution of such traditional identities.”

The third factor Ford describes as “an asymmetrical increase in the salience of status concerns due to the political repercussions of educational expansion and generational value change,” especially “because of the progressive monopolization of politics by high-status professionals,” creating a constituency of “cultural losers of modernization” who “found themselves without any mainstream political actors willing to represent and defend their ‘ways of life’ ” — a role Trump sought to fill.

In their book, “Cultural Backlash,” Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart, political scientists at Harvard and the University of Michigan, describe the constituencies in play here — the “oldest (interwar) generation, non-college graduates, the working class, white Europeans, the more religious, men, and residents of rural communities” that have moved to the right in part in response to threats to their status:

These groups are most likely to feel that they have become estranged from the silent revolution in social and moral values, left behind by cultural changes that they deeply reject. The interwar generation of non-college educated white men — until recently the politically and socially dominant group in Western cultures — has passed a tipping point at which their hegemonic status, power, and privilege are fading.

The emergence of what political scientists call “affective polarization,” in which partisans incorporate their values, their race, their religion — their belief system — into their identity as a Democrat or Republican, together with more traditional “ideological polarization” based on partisan differences in policy stands, has produced heightened levels of partisan animosity and hatred.

Lilliana Mason, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, describes it this way:

The alignment between partisan and other social identities has generated a rift between Democrats and Republicans that is deeper than any seen in recent American history. Without the crosscutting identities that have traditionally stabilized the American two-party system, partisans in the American electorate are now seeing each other through prejudiced and intolerant eyes.

If polarization has evolved into partisan hatred, status competition serves to calcify the animosity between Democrats and Republicans.

In their July 2020 paper, “Beyond Populism: The Psychology of Status-Seeking and Extreme Political Discontent,” Michael Bang PetersenMathias Osmundsen and Alexander Bor, political scientists at Aarhus University in Denmark, contend there are two basic methods of achieving status: the “prestige” approach requiring notable achievement in a field and “dominance” capitalizing on threats and bullying. “Modern democracies,” they write,

are currently experiencing destabilizing events including the emergence of demagogic leaders, the onset of street riots, circulation of misinformation and extremely hostile political engagements on social media.

They go on:

Building on psychological research on status-seeking, we argue that at the core of extreme political discontent are motivations to achieve status via dominance, i.e., through the use of fear and intimidation. Essentially, extreme political behavior reflects discontent with one’s own personal standing and a desire to actively rectify this through aggression.

This extreme political behavior often coincides with the rise of populism, especially right-wing populism, but Petersen, Osmundsen and Bor contend that the behavior is distinct from populism:

The psychology of dominance is likely to underlie current-day forms of extreme political discontent — and associated activism — for two reasons: First, radical discontent is characterized by verbal or physical aggression, thus directly capitalizing on the competences of people pursuing dominance-based strategies. Second, current-day radical activism seems linked to desires for recognition and feelings of ‘losing out’ in a world marked by, on the one hand, traditional gender and race-based hierarchies, which limit the mobility of minority groups and, on the other hand, globalized competition, which puts a premium on human capital.

Extreme discontent, they continue,

is a phenomenon among individuals for whom prestige-based pathways to status are, at least in their own perception, unlikely to be successful. Despite their political differences, this perception may be the psychological commonality of, on the one hand, race- or gender-based grievance movements and, on the other hand, white lower-middle class right-wing voters.

The authors emphasize that the distinction between populism and status-driven dominance is based on populism’s “orientation toward group conformity and equality,” which stands “in stark contrast to dominance motivations. In contrast to conformity, dominance leads to self-promotion. In contrast to equality, dominance leads to support for steep hierarchies.”

Thomas Kurer, a political scientist at the University of Zurich, contends that status competition is a political tool deployed overwhelmingly by the right. By email, Kurer wrote:

It is almost exclusively political actors from the right and the radical right that actively campaign on the status issue. They emphasize implications of changing status hierarchies that might negatively affect the societal standing of their core constituencies and thereby aim to mobilize voters who fear, but have not yet experienced, societal regression. The observation that campaigning on potential status loss is much more widespread and, apparently, more politically worthwhile than campaigning on status gains and makes a lot of sense in light of the long-established finding in social psychology that citizens care much more about a relative loss compared to same-sized gains.

Kurer argued that it is the threat of lost prestige, rather than the actual loss, that is a key factor in status-based political mobilization:

Looking at the basic socio-demographic profile of a Brexiter or a typical supporter of a right-wing populist party in many advanced democracies suggests that we need to be careful with a simplified narrative of a ‘revolt of the left behind’. A good share of these voters can be found in what we might call the lower middle class, which means they might well have decent jobs and decent salaries — but they fear, often for good reasons, that they are not on the winning side of economic modernization.

Kurer noted that in his own April 2020 study, “The Declining Middle: Occupational Change, Social Status, and the Populist Right,” he found

that it is voters who are and remain in jobs susceptible to automation and digitalization, so called routine jobs, who vote for the radical right and not those who actually lose their routine jobs. The latter are much more likely to abstain from politics altogether.

In a separate study of British voters who supported the leave side of Brexit, “The malaise of the squeezed middle: Challenging the narrative of the ‘left behind’ Brexiter,” by Lorenza Antonucci of the University of Birmingham, Laszlo Horvath of the University of Exeter, Yordan Kutiyski of VU University Amsterdam and André Krouwel of the Vrije University of Amsterdam, found that this segment of the electorate

is associated more with intermediate levels of education than with low or absent education, in particular in the presence of a perceived declining economic position. Secondly, we find that Brexiters hold distinct psychosocial features of malaise due to declining economic conditions, rather than anxiety or anger. Thirdly, our exploratory model finds voting Leave associated with self-identification as middle class, rather than with working class. We also find that intermediate levels of income were not more likely to vote for remain than low-income groups.

In an intriguing analysis of the changing role of status in politics, Herbert Kitschelt, a political scientist at Duke, emailed the following argument. In the recent past, he wrote:

One unique thing about working class movements — particularly when infused with Marxism — is that they could dissociate class from social status by constructing an alternative status hierarchy and social theory: Workers may be poor and deprived of skill, but in world-historic perspective they are designated to be the victorious agents of overcoming capitalism in favor of a more humane social order.

Since then, Kitschelt continued, “the downfall of the working class over the last thirty years is not just a question of its numerical shrinkage, its political disorganization and stagnating wages. It also signifies a loss of status.” The political consequences are evident and can be seen in the aftermath of the defeat of President Trump:

Those who cannot adopt or compete in the dominant status order — closely associated with the acquisition of knowledge and the mastery of complex cultural performances — make opposition to this order a badge of pride and recognition. The proliferation of conspiracy theories is an indicator of this process. People make themselves believe in them, because it induces them into an alternative world of status and rank.

On the left, Kitschelt wrote, the high value accorded to individuality, difference and autonomy creates

a fundamental tension between the demand for egalitarian economic redistribution — and the associated hope for status leveling — and the prerogative awarded to individualist or voluntary group distinction. This is the locus, where identity politics — and the specific form of intersectionality as a mode of signaling multiple facets of distinctiveness — comes in.

In the contest of contemporary politics, status competition serves to exacerbate some of the worst aspects of polarization, Kitschelt wrote:

If polarization is understood as the progressive division of society into clusters of people with political preferences and ways of life that set them further and further apart from each other, status politics is clearly a reinforcement of polarization. This augmentation of social division becomes particularly virulent when it features no longer just a clash between high and low status groups in what is still commonly understood as a unified status order, but if each side produces its own status hierarchies with their own values.

These trends will only worsen as claims of separate “status hierarchies” are buttressed by declining economic opportunities and widespread alienation from the mainstream liberal culture.

Millions of voters, including the core group of Trump supporters — whites without college degrees — face bleak futures, pushed further down the ladder by meritocratic competition that rewards what they don’t have: higher education and high scores on standardized tests. Jockeying for place in a merciless meritocracy feeds into the status wars that are presently poisoning the country, even as exacerbated levels of competition are, theoretically, an indispensable component of contemporary geopolitical and economic reality.

Voters in the bottom half of the income distribution face a level of hypercompetition that has, in turn, served to elevate politicized status anxiety in a world where social and economic mobility has, for many, ground to a halt: 90 percent of the age cohort born in the 1940s looked forward to a better standard of living than their parents’, compared with 50 percent for those born since 1980. Even worse, those in the lower status ranks suffer the most lethal consequences of the current pandemic.

These forces in their totality suggest that Joe Biden faces the toughest challenge of his career in attempting to fulfill his pledge to the electorate: “We can restore the defining American promise, that no matter where you start in life, there’s nothing you can’t achieve. And, in doing so, we can restore the soul of our nation.”

Trump has capitalized on the failures of this American promise. Now we have to hope that Biden can deliver.

Posted in Democracy, Empire, History, Politics

“The Crown” and the Long Tradition of Petitioning the Monarch for Redress of Grievances

In episode 5 of The Crown‘s season 4, a desperate out-of-work painter named Michael Fagan breaks into Buckingham Palace, enters the queen’s bedroom, sits on the foot of her bed, and asks her for a cigarette.  “Filthy habit,” she replies. “Yes, I know, I’m trying to quit,” he says.  Then he gets down to business, by asking her to provide relief from his dire economic condition.  The incident is real, occurring on January 9, 1982, during the time when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister. In light of the bizarre circumstances of the encounter, both parties were remarkably calm. When security officers arrived, the queen asked them to delay arrest until she could shake the intruder’s hand.  

Fagan and the Queen

Watching this I was struck by the way it represented a much broader historical phenomenon:  the longstanding practice of people petitioning the sovereign for the redress of grievances.  In many ways, this practice is an answer to the question of why monarchy was such a durable form of governance over the centuries.  The answer is that, except in absolutist regimes, the king was able to position himself as head of state rather than head of government.  Government was the domain of his ministers, who set policy and passed laws.  The king appointed his ministers but could claim some distance from their policies, able to dispatch them quickly — by dismissal or decapitation — if the policies didn’t work out.  In this way, the king could represent himself as the guardian of the people while the ministers were just the functionaries of government.  And as sovereign, he granted ordinary people the right to petition him when government policies put them in jeopardy.  This gave a remarkable durability of the monarchy, as it was able to evade responsibility for bad outcomes and earn affection from the populace by occasionally redressing their grievances.  It was a very effective good-cop/bad-cop arrangement that has endured right up to the present.  

As constitutional monarch, Queen Elizabeth appointed Margaret Thatcher as prime minister, but she had plausible deniability for being responsible for Thatcher’s draconian policies, which had caused so much economic harm to UK workers like Fagan.  So it made sense for him to approach her directly in seeking relief, as so many had approached monarchs in the past.  In his extreme state — barred access to his children, perpetually out of work, and with no hope in sight — he had nothing to lose by his daring palace break-in.

There is a long history of petitions to the crown.  In 1774, the First Continental Congress of the American colonies sent a petition to George III requesting relief from a set of grievances they put before him.

Most Gracious Sovereign: We, your Majesty’s faithful subjects of the Colonies of New-Hampshire, Massachusetts Bay, Rhode-Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New-York, New-Jersey, Pennsylvania, the Counties of New-Castle, Kent, and Sussex, on Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina, in behalf of ourselves and the inhabitants of those Colonies who have deputed us to represent them in General Congress, by this our humble Petition, beg leave to lay our Grievances before the Throne.

After laying out these grievances in detail, the Congress closed the petition in a tone of hope and respect:

We therefore most earnestly beseech your Majesty, that your Royal authority and interposition may be used for our relief, and that a gracious Answer may be given to this Petition.

That your Majesty may enjoy every felicity through a long and glorious Reign, over loyal and happy subjects, and that your descendants may inherit your prosperity and Dominions till time shall be no more, is, and always will be, our sincere and fervent prayer.

The king, of course, did not respond as they had requested and the ultimate result for the American war of independence.  So petitioning the sovereign has been no guarantee of success, but the sheer possibility of the king’s intervention has kept hope alive.  

Consider another famous petition, whose outcome was both faster and worse.  In January of 1905, a group of 135,000 workingmen presented the following plea to Tsar Nicholas II at his winter palace in St. Petersburg.

Sire,—

We working men of St. Petersburg, our wives and children, and our parents, helpless, aged men and women, have come to you, О Tsar, in quest of justice and protection. We have been beggared, oppressed, over-burdened with excessive toil, treated with contumely. We are not recognized as normal human beings, but are dealt with as slaves who have to bear their bitter lot in silence. Patiently we endured this; but now we are being thrust deeper into the slough of right-lessness and ignorance, are being suffocated by despotism and arbitrary whims, and now, О Tsar, we have no strength left. The awful moment has come when death is better than the prolongation of our unendurable tortures.

After a long list of grievances and demands, the petition closed with the following words:

Those, Sire, constitute our principal needs, which we come to lay before you. Give orders and swear that they shall be fulfilled, and you will render Russia happy and glorious, and will impress your name on our hearts and on the hearts of our children, and our children’s children for all time. But if you withhold the word, if you are not responsive to our petition, we will die here on this square before your palace, for we have nowhere else to go to and no reason to repair elsewhere. For us there are but two roads, one leading to liberty and happiness, the other to the tomb. Point, Sire, to either of them; we will take it, even though it lead to death. Should our lives serve as a holocaust of agonizing Russia, we will not grudge these sacrifices; we gladly offer them up.

The Tsar chose Door No. 2 and several hundred workers were gunned down in front of the palace, an event remembered in history as Bloody Sunday.

Michael Fagan’s petition didn’t end well either.  Thatcher’s policies remained in effect; he was declared insane by a court and sentenced to a mental hospital.  Released three months later, he spent years in and out of prison.  But he’s also been talking about the incident ever since.  Wouldn’t you?

Constitutional monarchs like Queen Elizabeth continue to enjoy the benefit of being head of state without the responsibility and accountability that comes from being head of government.  Presidents, in governments like the United States, don’t have the luxury of enjoying prestige without power, of being the symbol of the nation while remaining above the fray.  On the other hand, maybe pinning your hopes on someone who can’t deliver for you is a fool’s game.  Maybe we’re better off with a leader who can be held to account.

Posted in Education policy, History of education, Research, Teacher education

Do No Harm: Reflections on the Impact of Educational Research

This post is a short piece I wrote in 2011 for a special issue of the journal Teacher Education and Practice on “Enhancing Teaching and Learning Through Scholarship.” My one take is that research in education is not necessarily well positioned to enhance education; on the contrary, it often does more harm than good.  See what you think.  Here’s a link to the original.

Do No Harm

David F. Labaree

            Education is a field of dreams and so is educational research.  As educators, we dream of schools that can improve the lives of students, solve social problems, and enrich the quality of life; and as educational researchers, we dream that our studies will enhance the effectiveness of schools in achieving these worthy goals.  Both fields draw recruits who see the possibilities of education as a force for doing good, and that turns out to be a problem, because the history of both fields shows that the chances for doing real harm are substantial.  Over the years, research on teaching and teacher education – the topic of the discussion in this special issue – has caused a lot of damage to teaching and learning and learning-to-teach in schools.  So I suggest a good principle to adopt when considering the role of research in teacher education is a version of the Hippocratic Oath:  First do no harm. 

The history of educational research in the United States in the twentieth century supports a pessimistic assessment of the field’s impact on American school and society.  There was Edward L. Thorndike, whose work emphasized the importance of differentiating the curriculum in order to provide the skills and knowledge that students would later need in playing sharply different roles in a stratified workforce.  There was David Snedden, who labored tirelessly to promote narrowly vocational training for that large group of students who would end up serving in what he called “the rank and file.”  There were the kingpins of educational testing, such as Lewis Terman, who developed instruments that allowed educators to measure student ability and student learning, which in turn helped determine which track students should occupy and what role they should play in later life.  Put together, these kinds of enormously productive educational researchers helped build a system of schooling that emphasized sorting over learning and promoted a vision of teaching that emphasized the delivery of curriculum over the engagement of students.  They laid the foundation for the current machinery of curriculum standards and high-stakes testing that has turned American teaching into a machinery for raising test scores.

            Of course, these educational researchers usually did not intend to do harm.  (Snedden is the exception here, a man who was on a mission to dumb down schooling for the lower classes.)  For the most part, they saw making curriculum more scientific and intelligence testing more accurate as ways to allow individuals with merit to escape from the clutches of their social origins.  Like most educational researchers, they were optimists about the possible impact of their work.  But their examples should serve as a cautionary tale for researchers who see their work as an unmitigated exercise in human improvement. 

One factor in particular tends to bend the work of researchers toward the dark side of the force, and that is research funding.  Very few government agencies and foundations are eager to support basic research in education.  Instead, funding aligns with the latest educational policy objectives, and to get funded researchers need to demonstrate that their work will in some manner serve these objectives.  That is not to say that the researchers necessarily support these policy missions, but in order to win the grant they do have to harness their work, at least rhetorically, to the aims that motivate the request for proposals.  In the current global policy climate, that means the work needs to address issues around accountability and standards and improving test scores.  If you cannot spin your work in this direction, you will have trouble getting funded.

            Another factor that interferes with the educational researcher’s desire to do good for teachers and teacher educators is the need to confront an educational version of Gresham’s Law:  Bad research tends to displace good.  The best research is complex, and this puts the researcher at a competitive disadvantage, since policymakers and teacher educators prefer results that are definitive and easy to understand.  The most sophisticated work we produce tends to show an educational reality that has a complex array of elements interacting within a fiendishly complex organizational structure, which means that research findings have to be carefully qualified to the point where it is nearly impossible to say with clarity that a particular form of educational practice is effective or ineffective.  Instead, we have to report that it all depends.  In addition, in order to understand the research findings in any depth, you need to be able to sort through issues of design, methodology, and validity that are only accessible to experts in the field. 

            Meanwhile, there is a vast array of research available to policymakers and practitioners that supports clear answers to educational problems and does so in a manner that is easy for the layperson to comprehend.  This kind of work comes from two kinds of groups: think tanks, and entrepreneurial organizations for the delivery of education.  Think tanks remove a key element of complexity from the research process by deciding in advance what the politically desirable policy is and then conducting studies that provide clear support for that policy.  In the U.S. there are also a variety of non-governmental organizations that are active in promoting and delivering a particular brand of educational service, such as Teach For America (TFA, with its alternative to traditional teacher preparation) and the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP, with its alternative approach to running schools in low income neighborhoods).  These organizations commission research that conveniently demonstrates the effectiveness of what they do.  And both types of research producers are particularly effective at marketing their findings to the relevant actors in the policy and education communities. 

University based educational research cannot compete with these other producers in clarity and understandability, but they can undercut the impact of this work a bit by doing what university researchers have always been good at.  We have an advantage in being the only group without a dog in the policy hunt, which allows us to perform credible fundamental research about how schools work, how teaching and learning happens, and how teachers learn to teach.  Work like this can help show how simplistic and politically biased these other research products really are.  And it won’t do much harm.

Posted in Liberal democracy, Philosophy, Politics, Populism

Francis Fukuyama: Liberalism and Its Discontents

This post is an essay by political scientist Francis Fukuyama about the challenges facing liberal democracy today from populisms of the left and right.  The original appeared in the on-line journal, American Purpose, which he helped found.  

A large number of essays have emerged in recent years worrying about the future of liberal democracy, but to my taste most of these take a defensive posture that aims more at shoring up the walls protecting this institution than on analyzing why it is under attack.  I am personally committed to the values of liberal democracy, but I find these defenses more stirring than illuminating.  This is the first discussion I have seen about how liberalism’s problems arise from characteristics of liberalism itself.  

A key tension in liberal democracy is between its two components.  Liberal societies value individual liberty, the rule of law, and the protection of minority rights.  Democratic societies value social equality and majority rule.  There are some liberal societies that are not democracies, such as Hong Kong and Singapore in the late 20th century; and there are democratic societies that are illiberal, such as the ones emerging today in Hungary and India.  The key threat he sees today is the rise of illiberalism in the democracies of Western Europe and in the U.S., coming both from right and left.

Each political vector latches on to one of liberalism’s key weakness.  The right focuses on the individualism of the liberal creed, which treats inherently social human beings as independent self-interested actors.  This leaves a craving for community, religion, nationalism, and cultural identity.  Recent cases in point: Brexit, MAGA, and the rise of evangelicalism.  The left focuses on liberalism’s tolerance for social inequality, which is built into the idea of a state reluctant to interfere in private actions and choices.  This tendency has been exacerbated in the last 50 years by the rise of neoliberalism and its effort to free markets from state control and dismantle the welfare state.

Fukuyama shows that these problems with liberalism are nothing new.  And he also suggests that liberal democracies have the capacity to respond to both sets of concerns within its institutional framework, as it has proven in the past.  Here’s his concluding comment:

Liberalism’s present-day crisis is not new; since its invention in the 17th century, liberalism has been repeatedly challenged by thick communitarians on the right and progressive egalitarians on the left. Liberalism properly understood is perfectly compatible with communitarian impulses and has been the basis for the flourishing of deep and diverse forms of civil society. It is also compatible with the social justice aims of progressives: One of its greatest achievements was the creation of modern redistributive welfare states in the late 20th century. Liberalism’s problem is that it works slowly through deliberation and compromise, and never achieves its communal or social justice goals as completely as their advocates would like. But it is hard to see how the discarding of liberal values is going to lead to anything in the long term other than increasing social conflict and ultimately a return to violence as a means of resolving differences.

At 4,500 words, this is a longer piece than most of my postings, but I think you’ll find it’s an easy read.  I’m no philosopher, and I tend to get tied in knots trying to follow philosophical arguments.  But I found that his discussion was something even I could understand.  Hope you enjoy it as much as I did. 

Fukuyama Image

Liberalism and Its Discontents

The challenges from the left and the right.

Francis Fukuyama

05 Oct 2020, 12:15 am

Today, there is a broad consensus that democracy is under attack or in retreat in many parts of the world. It is being contested not just by authoritarian states like China and Russia, but by populists who have been elected in many democracies that seemed secure.

The “democracy” under attack today is a shorthand for liberal democracy, and what is really under greatest threat is the liberal component of this pair. The democracy part refers to the accountability of those who hold political power through mechanisms like free and fair multiparty elections under universal adult franchise. The liberal part, by contrast, refers primarily to a rule of law that constrains the power of government and requires that even the most powerful actors in the system operate under the same general rules as ordinary citizens. Liberal democracies, in other words, have a constitutional system of checks and balances that limits the power of elected leaders.

Democracy itself is being challenged by authoritarian states like Russia and China that manipulate or dispense with free and fair elections. But the more insidious threat arises from populists within existing liberal democracies who are using the legitimacy they gain through their electoral mandates to challenge or undermine liberal institutions. Leaders like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, India’s Narendra Modi, and Donald Trump in the United States have tried to undermine judicial independence by packing courts with political supporters, have openly broken laws, or have sought to delegitimize the press by labeling mainstream media as “enemies of the people.” They have tried to dismantle professional bureaucracies and to turn them into partisan instruments. It is no accident that Orbán puts himself forward as a proponent of “illiberal democracy.”

The contemporary attack on liberalism goes much deeper than the ambitions of a handful of populist politicians, however. They would not be as successful as they have been were they not riding a wave of discontent with some of the underlying characteristics of liberal societies. To understand this, we need to look at the historical origins of liberalism, its evolution over the decades, and its limitations as a governing doctrine.

What Liberalism Was

Classical liberalism can best be understood as an institutional solution to the problem of governing over diversity. Or to put it in slightly different terms, it is a system for peacefully managing diversity in pluralistic societies. It arose in Europe in the late 17th and 18th centuries in response to the wars of religion that followed the Protestant Reformation, wars that lasted for 150 years and killed major portions of the populations of continental Europe.

While Europe’s religious wars were driven by economic and social factors, they derived their ferocity from the fact that the warring parties represented different Christian sects that wanted to impose their particular interpretation of religious doctrine on their populations. This was a period in which the adherents of forbidden sects were persecuted—heretics were regularly tortured, hanged, or burned at the stake—and their clergy hunted. The founders of modern liberalism like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke sought to lower the aspirations of politics, not to promote a good life as defined by religion, but rather to preserve life itself, since diverse populations could not agree on what the good life was. This was the distant origin of the phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence. The most fundamental principle enshrined in liberalism is one of tolerance: You do not have to agree with your fellow citizens about the most important things, but only that each individual should get to decide what those things are without interference from you or from the state. The limits of tolerance are reached only when the principle of tolerance itself is challenged, or when citizens resort to violence to get their way.

Understood in this fashion, liberalism was simply a pragmatic tool for resolving conflicts in diverse societies, one that sought to lower the temperature of politics by taking questions of final ends off the table and moving them into the sphere of private life. This remains one of its most important selling points today: If diverse societies like India or the United States move away from liberal principles and try to base national identity on race, ethnicity, or religion, they are inviting a return to potentially violent conflict. The United States suffered such conflict during its Civil War, and Modi’s India is inviting communal violence by shifting its national identity to one based on Hinduism.

There is however a deeper understanding of liberalism that developed in continental Europe that has been incorporated into modern liberal doctrine. In this view, liberalism is not simply a mechanism for pragmatically avoiding violent conflict, but also a means of protecting fundamental human dignity.

The ground of human dignity has shifted over time. In aristocratic societies, it was an attribute only of warriors who risked their lives in battle. Christianity universalized the concept of dignity based on the possibility of human moral choice: Human beings had a higher moral status than the rest of created nature but lower than that of God because they could choose between right and wrong. Unlike beauty or intelligence or strength, this characteristic was universally shared and made human beings equal in the sight of God. By the time of the Enlightenment, the capacity for choice or individual autonomy was given a secular form by thinkers like Rousseau (“perfectibility”) and Kant (a “good will”), and became the ground for the modern understanding of the fundamental right to dignity written into many 20th-century constitutions. Liberalism recognizes the equal dignity of every human being by granting them rights that protect individual autonomy: rights to speech, to assembly, to belief, and ultimately to participate in self-government.

Liberalism thus protects diversity by deliberately not specifying higher goals of human life. This disqualifies religiously defined communities as liberal. Liberalism also grants equal rights to all people considered full human beings, based on their capacity for individual choice. Liberalism thus tends toward a kind of universalism: Liberals care not just about their rights, but about the rights of others outside their particular communities. Thus the French Revolution carried the Rights of Man across Europe. From the beginning the major arguments among liberals were not over this principle, but rather over who qualified as rights-bearing individuals, with various groups—racial and ethnic minorities, women, foreigners, the propertyless, children, the insane, and criminals—excluded from this magic circle.

A final characteristic of historical liberalism was its association with the right to own property. Property rights and the enforcement of contracts through legal institutions became the foundation for economic growth in Britain, the Netherlands, Germany, the United States, and other states that were not necessarily democratic but protected property rights. For that reason liberalism is strongly associated with economic growth and modernization. Rights were protected by an independent judiciary that could call on the power of the state for enforcement. Properly understood, rule of law referred both to the application of day-to-day rules that governed interactions between individuals and to the design of political institutions that formally allocated political power through constitutions. The class that was most committed to liberalism historically was the class of property owners, not just agrarian landlords but the myriads of middle-class business owners and entrepreneurs that Karl Marx would label the bourgeoisie.

Liberalism is connected to democracy, but is not the same thing as it. It is possible to have regimes that are liberal but not democratic: Germany in the 19th century and Singapore and Hong Kong in the late 20th century come to mind. It is also possible to have democracies that are not liberal, like the ones Viktor Orbán and Narendra Modi are trying to create that privilege some groups over others. Liberalism is allied to democracy through its protection of individual autonomy, which ultimately implies a right to political choice and to the franchise. But it is not the same as democracy. From the French Revolution on, there were radical proponents of democratic equality who were willing to abandon liberal rule of law altogether and vest power in a dictatorial state that would equalize outcomes. Under the banner of Marxism-Leninism, this became one of the great fault lines of the 20th century. Even in avowedly liberal states, like many in late 19th- and early 20th-century Europe and North America, there were powerful trade union movements and social democratic parties that were more interested in economic redistribution than in the strict protection of property rights.

Liberalism also saw the rise of another competitor besides communism: nationalism. Nationalists rejected liberalism’s universalism and sought to confer rights only on their favored group, defined by culture, language, or ethnicity. As the 19th century progressed, Europe reorganized itself from a dynastic to a national basis, with the unification of Italy and Germany and with growing nationalist agitation within the multiethnic Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires. In 1914 this exploded into the Great War, which killed millions of people and laid the kindling for a second global conflagration in 1939.

The defeat of Germany, Italy, and Japan in 1945 paved the way for a restoration of liberalism as the democratic world’s governing ideology. Europeans saw the folly of organizing politics around an exclusive and aggressive understanding of nation, and created the European Community and later the European Union to subordinate the old nation-states to a cooperative transnational structure. For its part, the United States played a powerful role in creating a new set of international institutions, including the United Nations (and affiliated Bretton Woods organizations like the World Bank and IMF), GATT and the World Trade Organization, and cooperative regional ventures like NATO and NAFTA.

The largest threat to this order came from the former Soviet Union and its allied communist parties in Eastern Europe and the developing world. But the former Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, as did the perceived legitimacy of Marxism-Leninism, and many former communist countries sought to incorporate themselves into existing international institutions like the EU and NATO. This post-Cold War world would collectively come to be known as the liberal international order.

But the period from 1950 to the 1970s was the heyday of liberal democracy in the developed world. Liberal rule of law abetted democracy by protecting ordinary people from abuse: The U.S. Supreme Court, for example, was critical in breaking down legal racial segregation through decisions like Brown v. Board of Education. And democracy protected the rule of law: When Richard Nixon engaged in illegal wiretapping and use of the CIA, it was a democratically elected Congress that helped drive him from power. Liberal rule of law laid the basis for the strong post-World War II economic growth that then enabled democratically elected legislatures to create redistributive welfare states. Inequality was tolerable in this period because most people could see their material conditions improving. In short, this period saw a largely happy coexistence of liberalism and democracy throughout the developed world.

Discontents

Liberalism has been a broadly successful ideology, and one that is responsible for much of the peace and prosperity of the modern world. But it also has a number of shortcomings, some of which were triggered by external circumstances, and others of which are intrinsic to the doctrine. The first lies in the realm of economics, the second in the realm of culture.

The economic shortcomings have to do with the tendency of economic liberalism to evolve into what has come to be called “neoliberalism.” Neoliberalism is today a pejorative term used to describe a form of economic thought, often associated with the University of Chicago or the Austrian school, and economists like Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, George Stigler, and Gary Becker. They sharply denigrated the role of the state in the economy, and emphasized free markets as spurs to growth and efficient allocators of resources. Many of the analyses and policies recommended by this school were in fact helpful and overdue: Economies were overregulated, state-owned companies inefficient, and governments responsible for the simultaneous high inflation and low growth experienced during the 1970s.

But valid insights about the efficiency of markets evolved into something of a religion, in which state intervention was opposed not based on empirical observation but as a matter of principle. Deregulation produced lower airline ticket prices and shipping costs for trucks, but also laid the ground for the great financial crisis of 2008 when it was applied to the financial sector. Privatization was pushed even in cases of natural monopolies like municipal water or telecom systems, leading to travesties like the privatization of Mexico’s TelMex, where a public monopoly was transformed into a private one. Perhaps most important, the fundamental insight of trade theory, that free trade leads to higher wealth for all parties concerned, neglected the further insight that this was true only in the aggregate, and that many individuals would be hurt by trade liberalization. The period from the 1980s onward saw the negotiation of both global and regional free trade agreements that shifted jobs and investment away from rich democracies to developing countries, increasing within-country inequalities. In the meantime, many countries starved their public sectors of resources and attention, leading to deficiencies in a host of public services from education to health to security.

The result was the world that emerged by the 2010s in which aggregate incomes were higher than ever but inequality within countries had also grown enormously. Many countries around the world saw the emergence of a small class of oligarchs, multibillionaires who could convert their economic resources into political power through lobbyists and purchases of media properties. Globalization enabled them to move their money to safe jurisdictions easily, starving states of tax revenue and making regulation very difficult. Globalization also entailed liberalization of rules concerning migration. Foreign-born populations began to increase in many Western countries, abetted by crises like the Syrian civil war that sent more than a million refugees into Europe. All of this paved the way for the populist reaction that became clearly evident in 2016 with Britain’s Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump in the United States.

The second discontent with liberalism as it evolved over the decades was rooted in its very premises. Liberalism deliberately lowered the horizon of politics: A liberal state will not tell you how to live your life, or what a good life entails; how you pursue happiness is up to you. This produces a vacuum at the core of liberal societies, one that often gets filled by consumerism or pop culture or other random activities that do not necessarily lead to human flourishing. This has been the critique of a group of (mostly) Catholic intellectuals including Patrick Deneen, Sohrab Ahmari, Adrian Vermeule, and others, who feel that liberalism offers “thin gruel” for anyone with deeper moral commitments.

This leads us to a deeper stratum of discontent. Liberal theory, both in its economic and political guises, is built around individuals and their rights, and the political system protects their ability to make these choices autonomously. Indeed, in neoclassical economic theory, social cooperation arises only as a result of rational individuals deciding that it is in their self-interest to work with other individuals. Among conservative intellectuals, Patrick Deneen has gone the furthest by arguing that this whole approach is deeply flawed precisely because it is based on this individualistic premise, and sanctifies individual autonomy above all other goods. Thus for him, the entire American project based as it was on Lockean individualistic principles was misfounded. Human beings for him are not primarily autonomous individuals, but deeply social beings who are defined by their obligations and ties to a range of social structures, from families to kin groups to nations.

This social understanding of human nature was a truism taken for granted by most thinkers prior to the Western Enlightenment. It is also one that is one supported by a great deal of recent research in the life sciences that shows that human beings are hard-wired to be social creatures: Many of our most salient faculties are ones that lead us to cooperate with one another in groups of various sizes and types. This cooperation does not arise necessarily from rational calculation; it is supported by emotional faculties like pride, guilt, shame, and anger that reinforce social bonds. The success of human beings over the millennia that has allowed our species to completely dominate its natural habitat has to do with this aptitude for following norms that induce social cooperation.

By contrast, the kind of individualism celebrated in liberal economic and political theory is a contingent development that emerged in Western societies over the centuries. Its history is long and complicated, but it originated in the inheritance rules set down by the Catholic Church in early medieval times which undermined the extended kinship networks that had characterized Germanic tribal societies. Individualism was further validated by its functionality in promoting market capitalism: Markets worked more efficiently if individuals were not constrained by obligations to kin and other social networks. But this kind of individualism has always been at odds with the social proclivities of human beings. It also does not come naturally to people in certain other non-Western societies like India or the Arab world, where kin, caste, or ethnic ties are still facts of life.

The implication of these observations for contemporary liberal societies is straightforward. Members of such societies want opportunities to bond with one another in a host of ways: as citizens of a nation, members of an ethnic or racial group, residents of a region, or adherents to a particular set of religious beliefs. Membership in such groups gives their lives meaning and texture in a way that mere citizenship in a liberal democracy does not.

Many of the critics of liberalism on the right feel that it has undervalued the nation and traditional national identity: Thus Viktor Orbán has asserted that Hungarian national identity is based on Hungarian ethnicity and on maintenance of traditional Hungarian values and cultural practices. New nationalists like Yoram Hazony celebrate nationhood and national culture as the rallying cry for community, and they bemoan liberalism’s dissolving effect on religious commitment, yearning for a thicker sense of community and shared values, underpinned by virtues in service of that community.

There are parallel discontents on the left. Juridical equality before the law does not mean that people will be treated equally in practice. Racism, sexism, and anti-gay bias all persist in liberal societies, and those injustices have become identities around which people could mobilize. The Western world has seen the emergence of a series of social movements since the 1960s, beginning with the civil rights movement in the United States, and movements promoting the rights of women, indigenous peoples, the disabled, the LGBT community, and the like. The more progress that has been made toward eradicating social injustices, the more intolerable the remaining injustices seem, and thus the moral imperative to mobilizing to correct them. The complaint of the left is different in substance but similar in structure to that of the right: Liberal society does not do enough to root out deep-seated racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination, so politics must go beyond liberalism. And, as on the right, progressives want the deeper bonding and personal satisfaction of associating—in this case, with people who have suffered from similar indignities.

This instinct for bonding and the thinness of shared moral life in liberal societies has shifted global politics on both the right and the left toward a politics of identity and away from the liberal world order of the late 20th century. Liberal values like tolerance and individual freedom are prized most intensely when they are denied: People who live in brutal dictatorships want the simple freedom to speak, associate, and worship as they choose. But over time life in a liberal society comes to be taken for granted and its sense of shared community seems thin. Thus in the United States, arguments between right and left increasingly revolve around identity, and particularly racial identity issues, rather than around economic ideology and questions about the appropriate role of the state in the economy.

There is another significant issue that liberalism fails to grapple adequately with, which concerns the boundaries of citizenship and rights. The premises of liberal doctrine tend toward universalism: Liberals worry about human rights, and not just the rights of Englishmen, or white Americans, or some other restricted class of people. But rights are protected and enforced by states which have limited territorial jurisdiction, and the question of who qualifies as a citizen with voting rights becomes a highly contested one. Some advocates of migrant rights assert a universal human right to migrate, but this is a political nonstarter in virtually every contemporary liberal democracy. At the present moment, the issue of the boundaries of political communities is settled by some combination of historical precedent and political contestation, rather than being based on any clear liberal principle.

Conclusion

Vladimir Putin told the Financial Times that liberalism has become an “obsolete” doctrine. While it may be under attack from many quarters today, it is in fact more necessary than ever.

It is more necessary because it is fundamentally a means of governing over diversity, and the world is more diverse than it ever has been. Democracy disconnected from liberalism will not protect diversity, because majorities will use their power to repress minorities. Liberalism was born in the mid-17th century as a means of resolving religious conflicts, and it was reborn again after 1945 to solve conflicts between nationalisms. Any illiberal effort to build a social order around thick ties defined by race, ethnicity, or religion will exclude important members of the community, and down the road will lead to conflict. Russia itself retains liberal characteristics: Russian citizenship and nationality is not defined by either Russian ethnicity or the Orthodox religion; the Russian Federation’s millions of Muslim inhabitants enjoy equal juridical rights. In situations of de facto diversity, attempts to impose a single way of life on an entire population is a formula for dictatorship.

The only other way to organize a diverse society is through formal power-sharing arrangements among different identity groups that give only a nod toward shared nationality. This is the way that Lebanon, Iraq, Bosnia, and other countries in the Middle East and the Balkans are governed. This type of consociationalism leads to very poor governance and long-term instability, and works poorly in societies where identity groups are not geographically based. This is not a path down which any contemporary liberal democracy should want to tread.

That being said, the kinds of economic and social policies that liberal societies should pursue is today a wide-open question. The evolution of liberalism into neoliberalism after the 1980s greatly reduced the policy space available to centrist political leaders, and permitted the growth of huge inequalities that have been fueling populisms of the right and the left. Classical liberalism is perfectly compatible with a strong state that seeks social protections for populations left behind by globalization, even as it protects basic property rights and a market economy. Liberalism is necessarily connected to democracy, and liberal economic policies need to be tempered by considerations of democratic equality and the need for political stability.

I suspect that most religious conservatives critical of liberalism today in the United States and other developed countries do not fool themselves into thinking that they can turn the clock back to a period when their social views were mainstream. Their complaint is a different one: that contemporary liberals are ready to tolerate any set of views, from radical Islam to Satanism, other than those of religious conservatives, and that they find their own freedom constrained.

This complaint is a serious one: Many progressives on the left have shown themselves willing to abandon liberal values in pursuit of social justice objectives. There has been a sustained intellectual attack on liberal principles over the past three decades coming out of academic pursuits like gender studies, critical race theory, postcolonial studies, and queer theory, that deny the universalistic premises underlying modern liberalism. The challenge is not simply one of intolerance of other views or “cancel culture” in the academy or the arts. Rather, the challenge is to basic principles that all human beings were born equal in a fundamental sense, or that a liberal society should strive to be color-blind. These different theories tend to argue that the lived experiences of specific and ever-narrower identity groups are incommensurate, and that what divides them is more powerful than what unites them as citizens. For some in the tradition of Michel Foucault, foundational approaches to cognition coming out of liberal modernity like the scientific method or evidence-based research are simply constructs meant to bolster the hidden power of racial and economic elites.

The issue here is thus not whether progressive illiberalism exists, but rather how great a long-term danger it represents. In countries from India and Hungary to the United States, nationalist conservatives have actually taken power and have sought to use the power of the state to dismantle liberal institutions and impose their own views on society as a whole. That danger is a clear and present one.

Progressive anti-liberals, by contrast, have not succeeded in seizing the commanding heights of political power in any developed country. Religious conservatives are still free to worship in any way they see fit, and indeed are organized in the United States as a powerful political bloc that can sway elections. Progressives exercise power in different and more nuanced ways, primarily through their dominance of cultural institutions like the mainstream media, the arts, and large parts of academia. The power of the state has been enlisted behind their agenda on such matters as striking down via the courts conservative restrictions on abortion and gay marriage and in the shaping of public school curricula. An open question for the future is whether cultural dominance today will ultimately lead to political dominance in the future, and thus a more thoroughgoing rollback of liberal rights by progressives.

Liberalism’s present-day crisis is not new; since its invention in the 17th century, liberalism has been repeatedly challenged by thick communitarians on the right and progressive egalitarians on the left. Liberalism properly understood is perfectly compatible with communitarian impulses and has been the basis for the flourishing of deep and diverse forms of civil society. It is also compatible with the social justice aims of progressives: One of its greatest achievements was the creation of modern redistributive welfare states in the late 20th century. Liberalism’s problem is that it works slowly through deliberation and compromise, and never achieves its communal or social justice goals as completely as their advocates would like. But it is hard to see how the discarding of liberal values is going to lead to anything in the long term other than increasing social conflict and ultimately a return to violence as a means of resolving differences.

Francis Fukuyama, chairman of the editorial board of American Purpose, directs the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at Stanford University.

Posted in Academic writing, Writing

Joe Moran: How to Write a Sentence, Pt. 2

This post is a continuation of my tribute to Joe Moran’s lovely book, First You Write a Sentence.  It’s part of my ongoing series of posts about issues in writing and books on writing.  What I like so much about Moran’s take on the subject is that he not only gives cogent advice for how to write better, but also he provides a stellar model of how to do so with grace and flair.  Never has there been a book about writing that is more fun to read.  He draws on some powerful examples of good writing, but most of the most memorable sentences in this book about sentences are his own. 

Moran Book Cover

Here he is talking about the balancing of concrete and abstract nouns:

We need concrete nouns to name solid things, and abstract nouns to give the vague notions in our heads a nouny solidity. Only with both of them can we capture what it is like to be human and alive.

Unlike other animals, humans do not just use their own data collection to find stuff out; they use data collected by others. Abstractions are how people share this second-hand knowledge, coming up with broad categories for things that, for convenience’s sake, ignore differences. The word home ignores the differences between houses, flats, bungalows and that blurrily mapped place where the heart belongs. Without this abstracting quality, we could never share with strangers all the things we know.

Writing stuck on one rung of the ladder of abstraction is too monotone. Arguments that use only abstract nouns, like truth and power and knowledge, are hard to care about because writing that sidesteps the senses is dull.

One ailment that particularly afflicts academic writing is the overuse of nominalizations.  These are the words that turn dynamic processes (verbs) into nouns:  stratify vs. stratification, educate vs. education.  They’re useful because they compress a lot into a single word, so you don’t have to repeat the entire action sequence that they represent.  They provide abstract categories for incorporating disparate concrete experiences.  But too many of them can drain all the energy from an argument and dull the senses of readers.

A nominalization traps energy inside it, turning fluid actions into unmoving things. It is the white dwarf of the sentence. A white dwarf is the shrunken remains of a star, in which gravity has packed the protons and electrons so tight that a spoonful of matter weighs tons. A nominalization is the shrunken remains of a verbal clause, a noun-heavy mass compacted with pre-learned knowledge. But pre-learned by whom? Your reader, you hope – but you can’t be sure.

If you want to see how much your own writing is burdened by nominalizations — which Helen Sword calls “zombie nouns” — you should paste a piece of text into her Writer’s Diet Test.  

Here’s Moran exploring the problem of too many nouns in your writing:

English is getting nounier. More than half the words in the dictionary are nouns and the number rises each year.

Single nouns grow into noun strings, in which the nouns retool as pseudo-adjectives. In theory these strings, like supply chain resource issues or website content delivery platform, turn all but the last noun into an adjective. In practice, we read them all as nouns until we get to the last one and have to untie the whole string.

This noun-ridden language – stale, self-proving, sleepwalking from one big noun to the next – has become the argot of modern managerialism. To measure its staleness, count the nouns. The nouniness of a piece of writing is a sure sign of lack of care for the reader and lack of thought in the writer. For writing is not just a way of communicating; it is a way of thinking. Nouny writing relieves the writer of the need to do either.

It’s clear how to fix the problem of nouniness, but it’s hard to carry this out in your own writing.

How do you breathe life into sentences choked with nouns? Simple: use verbs. Disinter the buried verbs and bring them back to life by reverbing them. Unspool the noun strings, restoring the proper links between the nouns by adding verbs and prepositions, even if this means using more words. Turn weak verb–noun phrases into verbs. Puts emphasis onemphasizes. Gives the impressionsuggests. Draws attention tonotes. Turn other parts of speech into verbs. Verbs born of adjectives – we dim lights, tame hair, muddy prose – can be especially cinematic.

Verbs enact this universal law: everything moves. 

Solid things only seem solid because their movements are too small to be seen. Things are not things but happenings. Nothing stays still, ever. Life is a noun but it can only be lived as a verb.

Adding strong verbs is hard. A sentence should be a labour to write, not to read. Nouny sentences are the reverse: a labour to read, a breeze to write.

One of Moran’s models for good writing is William Tyndale, who wrote the English translation of the bible that evolved into the King James version — the most influential text in the language.

If you want to write a short, simple, sweet-sounding sentence, Tyndale will show you how.

He has the same ear for vivid sayings, pitched just above normal talk, such as the salt of the earth or the powers that be or in the twinkling of an eye. Just as a proverb does, he takes the spoken word and moves it up a notch, while keeping the pulse and beat of speech.

Sentences should be as much like speech as you can make them – so long as you remember that they are nothing like speech. Writing needs to retain the loose shapes of talk, its rhythmic curves and breathing pauses, but overlay them with the tighter shapes of writing. Tyndale’s sentences feel like that. They land in this sweet spot, this fertile ground between writing and talk. They have godly grandeur but vernacular ease, the stateliness of liturgy but the artlessness of speech. A sentence should ring in the head but be wrought like writing.

One secret is to rely heavily on the short, strong words that were part of Old English, long before the Norman invasion brought Latinate words into the language.

Tyndale has a trick to make his prose more speech-like: he uses short words. The ancient Hebrew and Greek of the Bible have few long words, and nor does the language Tyndale relies on: Old English.

Old English words like ooze and spit retain an onomatopoeia that perhaps all words once had. Old English shut and shun sound out their meanings; Middle English close and avoid do not. Old English verbs, like flee, beckon, bless, and chew, are full of, to use an Old English noun, pith.

Old English is the tongue of a pre-literate people, whose lives turn around family, tribe and the elemental world that we know as children – of night and daycold and darkbreath and lifemeat and breadhunger and thirst.

More from Moran in future posts.  But do yourself a favor and read the book.

Posted in Course Syllabus, Educational goals, Educational Research, Organization Theory

Doctoral Proseminar: An Introduction to Big Issues in the Field of Education

This post contains all of the material for the doctoral proseminar — Introduction to Big Issues in the Field of Education — that I taught at the Stanford Graduate School of Education for the last four years of my time there.

The aim of this class is to give first-year doctoral students in education a grounding in some of the big issues surrounding the social role and social practice of schooling, with special emphasis on teaching and learning in classrooms and on school organization.  Each of you will soon be specializing in a particular component of the educational domain, but it will be helpful to you to be able to locate your own special area to broader themes and literatures in the field.  A lot of the readings in the class are nodal pieces in the network of educational citations; these are works you need to become familiar with.  This class should help you answer crucial questions about your own work.  What is your study a case of?  What larger issues does it resonate with?  What does it contribute to the larger discourse about school and society?

I’m posting the full syllabus below.  But it would be more useful to get it as a Word document through this link.  Feel free to share it with anyone you like.

All of the course materials are embedded in the syllabus through hyperlinks to a Google drive.  For each week, the syllabus includes a link to tips for approaching the readings, links to the PDFs of the readings, and a link to the slides for that week’s class.  Slides also include links to additional sources.  So the syllabus is all that is needed to gain access to the full class.

I hope you find this useful.

 

Doctoral Proseminar

An Introduction to Big Issues in the Field of Education

David Labaree

Email: dlabaree@stanford.edu

Twitter: @Dlabaree

Blog: https://davidlabaree.com/

 

Course Description

                The aim of this class is to give first-year doctoral students in education a grounding in some of the big issues surrounding the social role and social practice of schooling, with special emphasis on teaching and learning in classrooms and on school organization.  Each of you will soon be specializing in a particular component of the educational domain, but it will be helpful to you to be able to locate your own special area to broader themes and literatures in the field.  A lot of the readings in the class are nodal pieces in the network of educational citations; these are works you need to become familiar with.  This class should help you answer crucial questions about your own work.  What is your study a case of?  What larger issues does it resonate with?  What does it contribute to the larger discourse about school and society?

In the first week we look at the backstory of schooling in the U.S.  We explore its historical roots, the nature of its original mission, and how that mission evolved over time.  And we also examine the conflicting mix of goals that we have imposed on schools and the various social functions they have accumulated over time.

In week two, we turn to the core practices of teaching and learning in classrooms.  Included as issues such as:  the distinctive characteristics of teaching as a professional practice; the socialization of teachers and the incentives that shape the way teachers play their roles; and the grammar of schooling that both defines it and makes it resistant to change.

In week three, we look at the teacher-student relationship in the classroom and how this relationship is experienced by both parties.  We also examine some of the ways that schools create winners and losers, how they both promote and ameliorate social differences.

In week four, we look as school organization from several perspectives:  alternative ways of school organization and their implications for school outcomes; the loose coupling of the nested components of American schooling (classroom, school, school district, and state system) that make it different from other organizations; and the reasons that structural reforms often have little impact on teaching practice.

In week five, we look at the social and cultural pressures that shape school.  This includes examining how the shared expectations of teachers, students, and parents reinforce our conception of what a “real school” is; the rampant formalism that runs through schooling, favoring process over content; and the organizational features of schooling that allow it to carry social functions that the organization of families does not allow.

In week six, we look at the role that race, class, and culture have in schooling.  Among other things, this means examining the class and race factors that shape the kind of cultural knowledge and skill (cultural capital) schools value and try to teach; and the problem of attempting to teach this culture without at the same time demeaning or repressing other cultures.

In week seven, we look at the issue of cultural capital compared to other forms of capital.  And then we consider two different theoretical perspectives on the social role of the school curriculum – the functionalist view that schools teach the knowledge and values that all adults need in order to function in a modern society; and the social reproduction view that schools teach different knowledge and values to students from different backgrounds, thus preparing them for stratified futures.

In week eight, we read a classic book by the political economist Albert Hirschman – Exit, Voice, and Loyalty – which explores the mechanisms by which different kinds of organizations correct for dysfunctional outcomes.  He shows how market organizations are primarily responsive to exit, in which customers signal their dissatisfaction with a product by buying another one instead.  On the other hand, political organizations are primarily responsive to voice, in which clients signal their dissatisfaction by directly voicing their complaint.  From this view, low functioning schools can be seen as unhappy hybrids – political organizations that respond to voice but provoke dissatisfied customers to exit.

In week nine, we read another classic book by the political scientist and anthropologist James Scott – Seeing Like a State.  Here he addresses the problems inherent in state-initiated efforts at social engineering.  The issue is that such schemes too often involve an attempt by planners in the capital to impose a highly rationalized and universalistic model of social order on remote ecologies that are organic and particularistic.  Which sounds a lot like what happens in school reform.

In week ten, we look at the role that educational researchers play in shaping educational policy, the nature of educational research as a practice, and the trajectory of academic careers in a stratified system of higher education.

Readings

            All of the readings for this class are available as PDFs on the web.   This includes the full text of the two books assigned for the course, Hirschman and Scott.

Course Outline

             Below are the topics we will cover, week by week, with the readings for each week Just click on the assigned reading to link to the document on Google drive.  For every week you can click on a link to get tips for doing that week’s readings.  In addition, you can link to the slides for that week’s class.

1) Introduction:  The Historical Roots and Competing Goals of the U.S. School System

Tips for week 1 readings

Labaree, David F. (1997). Public goods, private goods: The American struggle over educational goals. American Educational Research Journal, 34:1 (Spring), 39-81.

Labaree, David F. (2010). Founding the American school system. In Someone has to fail: The zero-sum game of public schooling (pp. 42-79). Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Class slides for week 1

2) The Problems of Teaching as a Practice

Tips for week 2 readings

Cohen, David K. (1988), Teaching practice: Plus que ça change.  In Phillip W. Jackson (ed.), Contributing to Educational change (pp. 27-84).  Berkeley: McCutchan.

Lortie, Dan C. (1969). The balance of control and autonomy in elementary teaching. In Amatai Etzioni (Ed.), The semi-professions and their organization. Teachers, nurses, social workers. New York, 1-53.

Tyack, David & Tobin, William. (1994). The “grammar” of schooling: Why has it been so hard to change?  American Educational Research Journal 31: 3 (Autumn), 453-479.

Class slides for week 2

3) The Classroom, the Teacher-Student Relationship, and Tracking

Tips for week 3 readings

Jackson, Philip. (1990). The daily grind.  Life in classrooms (pp. 33-50). New York: Teachers College Press.

Waller, Willard.  (1932/1965). The teacher-pupil relationship. In The sociology of teaching (pp. 189-211). New York: Wiley.

Oakes, Jeannie. (1986). Keeping track, part 1: The policy and practice of curriculum inequality. Phi Delta Kappan68, 12-17.

Fine, Michelle. (1986). Why urban adolescents drop into and out of public high school. The Teachers College Record87(3), 393-409.

Class slides for week 3

4) The Organization of the School

Tips for week 4 readings

Katz, Michael. (1971). Alternative proposals for American education: The nineteenth century. In Class, Bureaucracy, and Schools (pp. 3-55). New York: Praeger.

Weick, Karl. (1976). Educational organizations as loosely-coupled systems. Administrative Science Quarterly21, 1-19.

Cuban, Larry. (2013). Why so many structural changes in schools and so little reform in teaching practice?  Inside the black box of classroom practiceChange without reform in American education (pp. 155-187). Cambridge: Harvard Education Press.

Class slides for week 4

5) Expectations and the Roots of the Stability of the School as an Organization

Tips for week 5 readings

Metz, Mary H. (1990). Real school: A universal drama amid disparate experience. In Douglas E. Mitchell & Margaret E. Goertz (Eds.), Education Politics for the New Century (pp. 75-91). New York: Falmer.

Meyer, John W. & Rowan, Brian. (1983). The structure of educational organizations. In Organizational environments: Ritual and rationality (pp. 71-97), edited by John W. Meyer and William R. Scott. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Parsons, Talcott. (1959). The school as a social system: Some of its functions in American society. In Social structure and personality (pp. 129-154). New York: Free Press.

Labaree, David F. (2014). Schooling in the United States:  Historical analyses. In D.C. Phillips (Ed.), Encyclopedia of educational theory and philosophy (pp. 740-43). Sage Publications: Thousand Oaks, CA.

Class slides for week 5

6) Class, Race, and Culture in the School

Tips for week 6 readings

Bernstein, Basil. (1977). Social class, language and socialization. In Jerome Karabel & A. H. Halsey (eds.), Power and ideology in education (pp. 473-486).  New York: Oxford University Press.

Ladson-Billings, G. (1998). Just what is critical race theory and what’s it doing in a nice field like education? International journal of qualitative studies in education11(1), 7-24.

Delpit, Lisa. (1995).  The silenced dialogue.  In Other people’s children (pp. 21-47).  New York: New Press.

Recommended:  The Problem We All Live With, Parts 1 and 2.  (2015). This American Life Podcast.  http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/562/the-problem-we-all-live-with.

Class slides for week 6

7) Cultural Difference and the School Curriculum

Tips for week 7 readings

Bourdieu, Pierre. (1986). The forms of capital. In John G. Richardson (ed.), Handbook of theory and research for the sociology of education (pp. 241-258). New York: Greenwood.

McWhorter, John. (2018). There’s nothing wrong with Black English. The Atlantichttps://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/08/who-gets-to-use-black-english/566867/?utm_source=twb.

Dreeben, Robert. (1968). The contribution of schooling to the learning of norms: Independence, achievement, universalism, and specificity. In On what is learned in school (pp. 63-90). Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Anyon, Jean. (1981). Social class and school knowledge. Curriculum Inquiry, 11, 3-42.

Class slides for week 7

8) Schools as Political and Market Entities

Tips for week 8 readings

Hirschman, Albert O. (2006). Exit, voice, and loyalty: Responses to decline in firms, organizations, and states. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Chubb, John E. & Moe, Terry M. (1988).  Politics, markets, and the organization of schools. American Political Science Review, 82:4 (December), 1065-1087.

Du Bois, W.E.B. (1903). The souls of black folk. New York: Knopf. http://etc.usf.edu/lit2go/203/the-souls-of-black-folk/4457/chapter-13-of-the-coming-of-john/

Class slides for week 8

9) The Problem of School Reform – Imposing a Rationalized Vision on the Ecology of the Classroom; Schooling and the Meritocracy

Tips for week 9 readings

Scott, James. (1999).  Seeing like a state.  New Haven: Yale University Press.  Introduction, chapters 1-2 and 9-10.

McClay, William M. (2016). A distant elite: How meritocracy went wrong. The Hedgehog Review 18:2 (Summer). http://www.iasc-culture.org/THR/THR_article_2016_Summer_McClay.php

Class slides for week 9

10) The Role of Researchers in Educational Policy and the Prospects for New Researchers in the University

Tips for week 10 readings

Cohen, David K. & Garet, Michael S. (1975). Reforming educational policy with applied social research. Harvard Educational Review45, 17-43.

Weber, Max. (1919/1958). Science as a vocation. In H. H. Gerth & C. Wright Mills, From Max Weber (pp. 129-156). New York: Oxford University Press.

March, James G. (1975). Education and the pursuit of optimism. Texas Tech Journal of Education2:1, 5-17.

Labaree, David F. (2012). Sermon on educational research. Bildungsgeschichte: International Journal for the Historiography of Education2:1, 78-87.

Class slides for week 10

Guidelines for Critical Reading

As a critical reader of a particular text (a book, article, speech, proposal), you need to use the following questions as a framework to guide you as you read:

  1. What’s the point? This is the analysis issue: what is the author’s angle?
  2. Who says? This is the validity issue: On what (data, literature) are the claims based?
  3. What’s new? This is the value-added issue: What does the author contribute that we don’t already know?
  4. Who cares? This is the significance issue, the most important issue of all, the one that subsumes all the others: Is this work worth doing?  Is the text worth reading?  Does it contribute something important?

If this is the way critical readers are going to approach a text, then as an analytical writer you need to guide readers toward the desired answers to each of these questions.

 Guidelines for Analytical Writing

             In writing papers for this (or any) course, keep in mind the following points.  They apply in particular to the longer papers, but most of the same concerns apply to short papers as well.

  1. Pick an important issue: Make sure that your analysis meets the “so what” test.  Why should anyone care about this topic, anyway?  Pick an issue or issues that matters and that you really care about.

 

  1. Keep focused: Don’t lose track of the point you are trying to make and make sure the reader knows where you are heading and why.

 

  1. Aim for clarity: Don’t assume that the reader knows what you’re talking about; it’s your job to make your points clearly.  In part this means keeping focused and avoiding distracting clutter.  But in part it means that you need to make more than elliptical references to concepts and sources or to professional experience.  When referring to readings (from the course or elsewhere), explain who said what and why this point is pertinent to the issue at hand.  When drawing on your own experiences or observations, set the context so the reader can understand what you mean.  Proceed as though you were writing for an educated person who is neither a member of this class nor a professional colleague, someone who has not read the material you are referring to.

 

  1. Provide analysis: A good paper is more than a catalogue of facts, concepts, experiences, or references; it is more than a description of the content of a set of readings; it is more than an expression of your educational values or an announcement of your prescription for what ails education.  A good paper is a logical and coherent analysis of the issues raised within your chosen area of focus.  This means that your paper should aim to explain rather than describe.  If you give examples, be sure to tell the reader what they mean in the context of your analysis.  Make sure the reader understands the connection between the various points in your paper.

 

  1. Provide depth, insight, and connections: The best papers are ones that go beyond making obvious points, superficial comparisons, and simplistic assertions.  They dig below the surface of the issue at hand, demonstrating a deeper level of understanding and an ability to make interesting connections.

 

  1. Support your analysis with evidence: You need to do more than simply state your ideas, however informed and useful these may be.  You also need to provide evidence that reassures the reader that you know what you are talking about, thus providing a foundation for your argument.  Evidence comes in part from the academic literature, whether encountered in this course or elsewhere.  Evidence can also come from your own experience.  Remember that you are trying to accomplish two things with the use of evidence.  First, you are saying that it is not just you making this assertion but that authoritative sources and solid evidence back you up.  Second, you are supplying a degree of specificity and detail, which helps to flesh out an otherwise skeletal argument.

 

  1. Draw on course materials (this applies primarily to reaction papers, not the final paper). Your paper should give evidence that you are taking this course.  You do not need to agree with any of the readings or presentations, but your paper should show you have considered the course materials thoughtfully.

 

  1. Recognize complexity and acknowledge multiple viewpoints. The issues in the history of American education are not simple, and your paper should not propose simple solutions to complex problems. It should not reduce issues to either/or, black/white, good/bad.  Your paper should give evidence that you understand and appreciate more than one perspective on an issue.  This does not mean you should be wishy-washy.  Instead, you should aim to make a clear point by showing that you have considered alternate views.

 

  1. Challenge assumptions. The paper should show that you have learned something by doing this paper. There should be evidence that you have been open to changing your mind.

 

  1. Do not overuse quotation: In a short paper, long quotations (more than a sentence or two in length) are generally not appropriate.  Even in longer papers, quotations should be used sparingly unless they constitute a primary form of data for your analysis.  In general, your paper is more effective if written primarily in your own words, using ideas from the literature but framing them in your own way in order to serve your own analytical purposes.  However, selective use of quotations can be very useful as a way of capturing the author’s tone or conveying a particularly aptly phrased point.

 

  1. Cite your sources: You need to identify for the reader where particular ideas or examples come from.  This can be done through in-text citation:  Give the author’s last name, publication year, and (in the case of quotations) page number in parentheses at the end of the sentence or paragraph where the idea is presented — e.g., (Kliebard, 1986, p. 22); provide the full citations in a list of references at the end of the paper.  You can also identify sources with footnotes or endnotes:  Give the full citation for the first reference to a text and a short citation for subsequent citations to the same text.  (For critical reaction papers, you only need to give the short cite for items from the course reading; other sources require full citations.)  Note that citing a source is not sufficient to fulfill the requirement to provide evidence for your argument.  As spelled out in #6 above, you need to transmit to the reader some of the substance of what appears in the source cited, so the reader can understand the connection with the point you are making and can have some meat to chew on.  The best analytical writing provides a real feel for the material and not just a list of assertions and citations.  Depth, insight, and connections count for more than a superficial collection of glancing references.  In other words, don’t just mention an array of sources without drawing substantive points and examples from these sources; and don’t draw on ideas from such sources without identifying the ones you used.

 

  1. Take care in the quality of your prose: A paper that is written in a clear and effective style makes a more convincing argument than one written in a murky manner, even when both writers start with the same basic understanding of the issues.  However, writing that is confusing usually signals confusion in a person’s thinking.  After all, one key purpose of writing is to put down your ideas in a way that permits you and others to reflect on them critically, to see if they stand up to analysis.  So you should take the time to reflect on your own ideas on paper and revise them as needed.  You may want to take advantage of the opportunity in this course to submit a draft of the final paper, revise it in light of comments, and then resubmit the revised version.  This, after all, is the way writers normally proceed.  Outside of the artificial world of the classroom, writers never turn in their first draft as their final statement on a subject.

 

Posted in History, Meritocracy, Politics, Populism

Graeme Wood — The Next Decade Could Be Even Worse

This post is a piece by Graeme Wood from the December Atlantic.  Here’s a link to the original.  

It’s a profile of Peter Turchin, a population ecologist who decided to turn his skills in mathematical modeling toward big history — looking for patterns across long expanses of time that help explain the rise and fall of civilizations.  His prognosis for our own is not very promising.  He sees rising prospects for civil unrest.

The fundamental problems, he says, are a dark triad of social maladies: a bloated elite class, with too few elite jobs to go around; declining living standards among the general population; and a government that can’t cover its financial positions. His models, which track these factors in other societies across history, are too complicated to explain in a nontechnical publication. But they’ve succeeded in impressing writers for nontechnical publications, and have won him comparisons to other authors of “megahistories,” such as Jared Diamond and Yuval Noah Harari.

I’m a fan of megahistories, by people like Diamond and Harari and historians like Walter Scheidel and Ian Morris, whom I’ve discussed here.  I’m particularly intrigued by his analysis of the overproduction of elites, which resonates with the critiques of meritocracy that I’ve explored in this blog (e.g., here, here, and here.)

Of the three factors driving social violence, Turchin stresses most heavily “elite overproduction”—­the tendency of a society’s ruling classes to grow faster than the number of positions for their members to fill. One way for a ruling class to grow is biologically—think of Saudi Arabia, where princes and princesses are born faster than royal roles can be created for them. In the United States, elites over­produce themselves through economic and educational upward mobility: More and more people get rich, and more and more get educated. Neither of these sounds bad on its own. Don’t we want everyone to be rich and educated? The problems begin when money and Harvard degrees become like royal titles in Saudi Arabia. If lots of people have them, but only some have real power, the ones who don’t have power eventually turn on the ones who do.

When you’re reading the following passage, I dare you not to think about Donald Trump and Steve Bannon.

Elite overproduction creates counter-elites, and counter-elites look for allies among the commoners. If commoners’ living standards slip—not relative to the elites, but relative to what they had before—they accept the overtures of the counter-elites and start oiling the axles of their tumbrels. Commoners’ lives grow worse, and the few who try to pull themselves onto the elite lifeboat are pushed back into the water by those already aboard. The final trigger of impending collapse, Turchin says, tends to be state insolvency. At some point rising in­security becomes expensive. The elites have to pacify unhappy citizens with handouts and freebies—and when these run out, they have to police dissent and oppress people. Eventually the state exhausts all short-term solutions, and what was heretofore a coherent civilization disintegrates.

See what you think about his take on things.

Turchin Illustration

The Next Decade Could Be Even Worse

A historian believes he has discovered iron laws that predict the rise and fall of societies. He has bad news.

Graeme Wood

Peter Turchin, one of the world’s experts on pine beetles and possibly also on human beings, met me reluctantly this summer on the campus of the University of Connecticut at Storrs, where he teaches. Like many people during the pandemic, he preferred to limit his human contact. He also doubted whether human contact would have much value anyway, when his mathematical models could already tell me everything I needed to know.

But he had to leave his office sometime. (“One way you know I am Russian is that I cannot think sitting down,” he told me. “I have to go for a walk.”) Neither of us had seen much of anyone since the pandemic had closed the country several months before. The campus was quiet. “A week ago, it was even more like a neutron bomb hit,” Turchin said. Animals were timidly reclaiming the campus, he said: squirrels, woodchucks, deer, even an occasional red-tailed hawk. During our walk, groundskeepers and a few kids on skateboards were the only other representatives of the human population in sight.

The year 2020 has been kind to Turchin, for many of the same reasons it has been hell for the rest of us. Cities on fire, elected leaders endorsing violence, homicides surging—­­to a normal American, these are apocalyptic signs. To Turchin, they indicate that his models, which incorporate thousands of years of data about human history, are working. (“Not all of human history,” he corrected me once. “Just the last 10,000 years.”) He has been warning for a decade that a few key social and political trends portend an “age of discord,” civil unrest and carnage worse than most Americans have experienced. In 2010, he predicted that the unrest would get serious around 2020, and that it wouldn’t let up until those social and political trends reversed. Havoc at the level of the late 1960s and early ’70s is the best-case scenario; all-out civil war is the worst.

The fundamental problems, he says, are a dark triad of social maladies: a bloated elite class, with too few elite jobs to go around; declining living standards among the general population; and a government that can’t cover its financial positions. His models, which track these factors in other societies across history, are too complicated to explain in a nontechnical publication. But they’ve succeeded in impressing writers for nontechnical publications, and have won him comparisons to other authors of “megahistories,” such as Jared Diamond and Yuval Noah Harari. The New York Times columnist Ross Douthat had once found Turchin’s historical model­ing unpersuasive, but 2020 made him a believer: “At this point,” Douthat recently admitted on a podcast, “I feel like you have to pay a little more attention to him.”

Diamond and Harari aimed to describe the history of humanity. Turchin looks into a distant, science-fiction future for peers. In War and Peace and War (2006), his most accessible book, he likens himself to Hari Seldon, the “maverick mathematician” of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, who can foretell the rise and fall of empires. In those 10,000 years’ worth of data, Turchin believes he has found iron laws that dictate the fates of human societies.

The fate of our own society, he says, is not going to be pretty, at least in the near term. “It’s too late,” he told me as we passed Mirror Lake, which UConn’s website describes as a favorite place for students to “read, relax, or ride on the wooden swing.” The problems are deep and structural—not the type that the tedious process of demo­cratic change can fix in time to forestall mayhem. Turchin likens America to a huge ship headed directly for an iceberg: “If you have a discussion among the crew about which way to turn, you will not turn in time, and you hit the iceberg directly.” The past 10 years or so have been discussion. That sickening crunch you now hear—steel twisting, rivets popping—­­is the sound of the ship hitting the iceberg.

“We are almost guaranteed” five hellish years, Turchin predicts, and likely a decade or more. The problem, he says, is that there are too many people like me. “You are ruling class,” he said, with no more rancor than if he had informed me that I had brown hair, or a slightly newer iPhone than his. Of the three factors driving social violence, Turchin stresses most heavily “elite overproduction”—­the tendency of a society’s ruling classes to grow faster than the number of positions for their members to fill. One way for a ruling class to grow is biologically—think of Saudi Arabia, where princes and princesses are born faster than royal roles can be created for them. In the United States, elites over­produce themselves through economic and educational upward mobility: More and more people get rich, and more and more get educated. Neither of these sounds bad on its own. Don’t we want everyone to be rich and educated? The problems begin when money and Harvard degrees become like royal titles in Saudi Arabia. If lots of people have them, but only some have real power, the ones who don’t have power eventually turn on the ones who do.

In the United States, Turchin told me, you can see more and more aspirants fighting for a single job at, say, a prestigious law firm, or in an influential government sinecure, or (here it got personal) at a national magazine. Perhaps seeing the holes in my T-shirt, Turchin noted that a person can be part of an ideological elite rather than an economic one. (He doesn’t view himself as a member of either. A professor reaches at most a few hundred students, he told me. “You reach hundreds of thousands.”) Elite jobs do not multiply as fast as elites do. There are still only 100 Senate seats, but more people than ever have enough money or degrees to think they should be running the country. “You have a situation now where there are many more elites fighting for the same position, and some portion of them will convert to counter-elites,” Turchin said.

Donald Trump, for example, may appear elite (rich father, Wharton degree, gilded commodes), but Trumpism is a counter-elite movement. His government is packed with credentialed nobodies who were shut out of previous administrations, sometimes for good reasons and sometimes because the Groton-­Yale establishment simply didn’t have any vacancies. Trump’s former adviser and chief strategist Steve Bannon, Turchin said, is a “paradigmatic example” of a counter-elite. He grew up working-class, went to Harvard Business School, and got rich as an investment banker and by owning a small stake in the syndication rights to Seinfeld. None of that translated to political power until he allied himself with the common people. “He was a counter-elite who used Trump to break through, to put the white working males back in charge,” Turchin said.

Elite overproduction creates counter-elites, and counter-elites look for allies among the commoners. If commoners’ living standards slip—not relative to the elites, but relative to what they had before—they accept the overtures of the counter-elites and start oiling the axles of their tumbrels. Commoners’ lives grow worse, and the few who try to pull themselves onto the elite lifeboat are pushed back into the water by those already aboard. The final trigger of impending collapse, Turchin says, tends to be state insolvency. At some point rising in­security becomes expensive. The elites have to pacify unhappy citizens with handouts and freebies—and when these run out, they have to police dissent and oppress people. Eventually the state exhausts all short-term solutions, and what was heretofore a coherent civilization disintegrates.

Turchin’s prognostications would be easier to dismiss as barstool theorizing if the disintegration were not happening now, roughly as the Seer of Storrs foretold 10 years ago. If the next 10 years are as seismic as he says they will be, his insights will have to be accounted for by historians and social scientists—assuming, of course, that there are still universities left to employ such people.

Turchin was born in 1957 in Obninsk, Russia, a city built by the Soviet state as a kind of nerd heaven, where scientists could collaborate and live together. His father, Valen­tin, was a physicist and political dissident, and his mother, Tatiana, had trained as a geologist. They moved to Moscow when he was 7 and in 1978 fled to New York as political refugees. There they quickly found a community that spoke the household language, which was science. Valen­tin taught at the City University of New York, and Peter studied biology at NYU and earned a zoology doctorate from Duke.

Turchin wrote a dissertation on the Mexican bean beetle, a cute, ladybug­like pest that feasts on legumes in areas between the United States and Guatemala. When Turchin began his research, in the early 1980s, ecology was evolving in a way that some fields already had. The old way to study bugs was to collect them and describe them: count their legs, measure their bellies, and pin them to pieces of particle­board for future reference. (Go to the Natural History Museum in London, and in the old storerooms you can still see the shelves of bell jars and cases of specimens.) In the ’70s, the Australian physicist Robert May had turned his attention to ecology and helped transform it into a mathematical science whose tools included supercomputers along with butterfly nets and bottle traps. Yet in the early days of his career, Turchin told me, “the majority of ecologists were still quite math-phobic.”

Turchin did, in fact, do fieldwork, but he contributed to ecology primarily by collecting and using data to model the dynamics of populations—for example, determining why a pine-beetle population might take over a forest, or why that same population might decline. (He also worked on moths, voles, and lemmings.)

In the late ’90s, disaster struck: Turchin realized that he knew everything he ever wanted to know about beetles. He compares himself to Thomasina Coverly, the girl genius in the Tom Stoppard play Arcadia, who obsessed about the life cycles of grouse and other creatures around her Derbyshire country house. Stoppard’s character had the disadvantage of living a century and a half before the development of chaos theory. “She gave up because it was just too complicated,” Turchin said. “I gave up because I solved the problem.”

Turchin published one final monograph, Complex Population Dynamics: A Theoretical / Empirical Synthesis (2003), then broke the news to his UConn colleagues that he would be saying a permanent sayonara to the field, although he would continue to draw a salary as a tenured professor in their department. (He no longer gets raises, but he told me he was already “at a comfortable level, and, you know, you don’t need so much money.”) “Usually a midlife crisis means you divorce your old wife and marry a graduate student,” Turchin said. “I divorced an old science and married a new one.”

One of his last papers appeared in the journal Oikos. “Does population ecology have general laws?” Turchin asked. Most ecologists said no: Populations have their own dynamics, and each situation is different. Pine beetles reproduce, run amok, and ravage a forest for pine-beetle reasons, but that does not mean mosquito or tick populations will rise and fall according to the same rhythms. Turchin suggested that “there are several very general law-like propositions” that could be applied to ecology. After its long adolescence of collecting and cataloging, ecology had enough data to describe these universal laws—and to stop pretending that every species had its own idiosyncrasies. “Ecologists know these laws and should call them laws,” he said. Turchin proposed, for example, that populations of organisms grow or decline exponentially, not linearly. This is why if you buy two guinea pigs, you will soon have not just a few more guinea pigs but a home—and then a neighborhood—full of the damn things (as long as you keep feeding them). This law is simple enough to be understood by a high-school math student, and it describes the fortunes of everything from ticks to starlings to camels. The laws Turchin applied to ecology—and his insistence on calling them laws—­generated respectful controversy at the time. Now they are cited in textbooks.

Having left ecology, Turchin began similar research that attempted to formulate general laws for a different animal species: human beings. He’d long had a hobby­ist’s interest in history. But he also had a predator’s instinct to survey the savanna of human knowledge and pounce on the weakest prey. “All sciences go through this transition to mathematization,” Turchin told me. “When I had my midlife crisis, I was looking for a subject where I could help with this transition to a mathematized science. There was only one left, and that was history.”

Historians read books, letters, and other texts. Occasionally, if they are archaeologically inclined, they dig up potsherds and coins. But to Turchin, relying solely on these methods was the equivalent of studying bugs by pinning them to particleboard and counting their antennae. If the historians weren’t going to usher in a mathematical revolution themselves, he would storm their departments and do it for them.

“There is a longstanding debate among scientists and philosophers as to whether history has general laws,” he and a co-author wrote in Secular Cycles (2009). “A basic premise of our study is that historical societies can be studied with the same methods physicists and biologists used to study natural systems.” Turchin founded a journal, Cliodynamics, dedicated to “the search for general principles explaining the functioning and dynamics of historical societies.” (The term is his coinage; Clio is the muse of history.) He had already announced the discipline’s arrival in an article in Nature, where he likened historians reluctant to build general principles to his colleagues in biology “who care most for the private life of warblers.” “Let history continue to focus on the particular,” he wrote. Cliodynamics would be a new science. While historians dusted bell jars in the basement of the university, Turchin and his followers would be upstairs, answering the big questions.

To seed the journal’s research, Turchin masterminded a digital archive of historical and archaeological data. The coding of its records requires finesse, he told me, because (for example) the method of determining the size of the elite-aspirant class of medieval France might differ from the measure of the same class in the present-day United States. (For medieval France, a proxy is the membership in its noble class, which became glutted with second and third sons who had no castles or manors to rule over. One American proxy, Turchin says, is the number of lawyers.) But once the data are entered, after vetting by Turchin and specialists in the historical period under review, they offer quick and powerful suggestions about historical phenomena.

Historians of religion have long pondered the relationship between the rise of complex civilization and the belief in gods—especially “moralizing gods,” the kind who scold you for sinning. Last year, Turchin and a dozen co-authors mined the database (“records from 414 societies that span the past 10,000 years from 30 regions around the world, using 51 measures of social complexity and 4 measures of supernatural enforcement of morality”) to answer the question conclusively. They found that complex societies are more likely to have moralizing gods, but the gods tend to start their scolding after the societies get complex, not before. As the database expands, it will attempt to remove more questions from the realm of humanistic speculation and sock them away in a drawer marked answered.

One of Turchin’s most unwelcome conclusions is that complex societies arise through war. The effect of war is to reward communities that organize themselves to fight and survive, and it tends to wipe out ones that are simple and small-scale. “No one wants to accept that we live in the societies we do”—rich, complex ones with universities and museums and philosophy and art—“because of an ugly thing like war,” he said. But the data are clear: Darwinian processes select for complex socie­ties because they kill off simpler ones. The notion that democracy finds its strength in its essential goodness and moral improvement over its rival systems is likewise fanciful. Instead, democratic societies flourish because they have a memory of being nearly obliterated by an external enemy. They avoided extinction only through collective action, and the memory of that collective action makes democratic politics easier to conduct in the present, Turchin said. “There is a very close correlation between adopting democratic institutions and having to fight a war for survival.”

Also unwelcome: the conclusion that civil unrest might soon be upon us, and might reach the point of shattering the country. In 2012, Turchin published an analysis of political violence in the United States, again starting with a database. He classified 1,590 incidents—riots, lynchings, any political event that killed at least one person—from 1780 to 2010. Some periods were placid and others bloody, with peaks of brutality in 1870, 1920, and 1970, a 50-year cycle. Turchin excludes the ultimate violent incident, the Civil War, as a “sui generis event.” The exclusion may seem suspicious, but to a statistician, “trimming outliers” is standard practice. Historians and journalists, by contrast, tend to focus on outliers—­because they are interesting—and sometimes miss grander trends.

Certain aspects of this cyclical view require relearning portions of American history, with special attention paid to the numbers of elites. The industrialization of the North, starting in the mid-19th century, Turchin says, made huge numbers of people rich. The elite herd was culled during the Civil War, which killed off or impoverished the southern slaveholding class, and during Reconstruction, when America experienced a wave of assassinations of Republican politicians. (The most famous of these was the assassination of James A. Garfield, the 20th president of the United States, by a lawyer who had demanded but not received a political appointment.) It wasn’t until the Progressive reforms of the 1920s, and later the New Deal, that elite overproduction actually slowed, at least for a time.

This oscillation between violence and peace, with elite over­production as the first horseman of the recurring American apocalypse, inspired Turchin’s 2020 prediction. In 2010, when Nature surveyed scientists about their predictions for the coming decade, most took the survey as an invitation to self-promote and rhapsodize, dreamily, about coming advances in their fields. Turchin retorted with his prophecy of doom and said that nothing short of fundamental change would stop another violent turn.

Turchin’s prescriptions are, as a whole, vague and unclassifiable. Some sound like ideas that might have come from Senator Elizabeth Warren—tax the elites until there are fewer of them—while others, such as a call to reduce immigration to keep wages high for American workers, resemble Trumpian protectionism. Other policies are simply heretical. He opposes credential-­oriented higher education, for example, which he says is a way of mass-producing elites without also mass-­producing elite jobs for them to occupy. Architects of such polices, he told me, are “creating surplus elites, and some become counter-elites.” A smarter approach would be to keep the elite numbers small, and the real wages of the general population on a constant rise.

How to do that? Turchin says he doesn’t really know, and it isn’t his job to know. “I don’t really think in terms of specific policy,” he told me. “We need to stop the runaway process of elite overproduction, but I don’t know what will work to do that, and nobody else does. Do you increase taxation? Raise the minimum wage? Universal basic income?” He conceded that each of these possibilities would have unpredictable effects. He recalled a story he’d heard back when he was still an ecologist: The Forest Service had once implemented a plan to reduce the population of bark beetles with pesticide—only to find that the pesticide killed off the beetles’ predators even more effectively than it killed the beetles. The intervention resulted in more beetles than before. The lesson, he said, was to practice “adaptive management,” changing and modulating your approach as you go.

Eventually, Turchin hopes, our understanding of historical dynamics will mature to the point that no government will make policy without reflecting on whether it is hurtling toward a mathematically pre­ordained disaster. He says he could imagine an Asimovian agency that keeps tabs on leading indicators and advises accordingly. It would be like the Federal Reserve, but instead of monitoring inflation and controlling monetary supply, it would be tasked with averting total civilizational collapse.

Historians have not, as a whole, accepted Turchin’s terms of surrender graciously. Since at least the 19th century, the discipline has embraced the idea that history is irreducibly complex, and by now most historians believe that the diversity of human activity will foil any attempt to come up with general laws, especially predictive ones. (As Jo Guldi, a historian at Southern Methodist University, put it to me, “Some historians regard Turchin the way astronomers regard Nostradamus.”) Instead, each historical event must be lovingly described, and its idiosyncrasies understood to be limited in relevance to other events. The idea that one thing causes another, and that the causal pattern can tell you about sequences of events in another place or century, is foreign territory.

One might even say that what defines history as a humanistic enterprise is the belief that it is not governed by scientific laws—that the working parts of human societies are not like billiard balls, which, if arranged at certain angles and struck with a certain amount of force, will invariably crack just so and roll toward a corner pocket of war, or a side pocket of peace. Turchin counters that he has heard claims of irreducible complexity before, and that steady application of the scientific method has succeeded in managing that complexity. Consider, he says, the concept of temperature—­something so obviously quantifiable now that we laugh at the idea that it’s too vague to measure. “Back before people knew what temperature was, the best thing you could do is to say you’re hot or cold,” Turchin told me. The concept depended on many factors: wind, humidity, ordinary human differences in perception. Now we have thermometers. Turchin wants to invent a thermometer for human societies that will measure when they are likely to boil over into war.

One social scientist who can speak to Turchin in his own mathematical argot is Dingxin Zhao, a sociology professor at the University of Chicago who is—incredibly—­also a former mathematical ecologist. (He earned a doctorate modeling carrot-weevil population dynamics before earning a second doctorate in Chinese political sociology.) “I came from a natural-science background,” Zhao told me, “and in a way I am sympathetic to Turchin. If you come to social science from natural sciences, you have a powerful way of looking at the world. But you may also make big mistakes.”

Zhao said that human beings are just much more complicated than bugs. “Biological species don’t strategize in a very flexible way,” he told me. After millennia of evolutionary R&D, a woodpecker will come up with ingenious ways to stick its beak into a tree in search of food. It might even have social characteristics—an alpha woodpecker might strong-wing beta woodpeckers into giving it first dibs on the tastiest termites. But humans are much wilier social creatures, Zhao said. A woodpecker will eat a termite, but it “will not explain that he is doing so because it is his divine right.” Humans pull ideological power moves like this all the time, Zhao said, and to understand “the decisions of a Donald Trump, or a Xi Jinping,” a natural scientist has to incorporate the myriad complexities of human strategy, emotion, and belief. “I made that change,” Zhao told me, “and Peter Turchin has not.”

Turchin is nonetheless filling a historiographical niche left empty by academic historians with allergies not just to science but to a wide-angle view of the past. He places himself in a Russian tradition prone to thinking sweeping, Tolstoyan thoughts about the path of history. By comparison, American historians mostly look like micro-historians. Few would dare to write a history of the United States, let alone one of human civilization. Turchin’s approach is also Russian, or post-Soviet, in its rejection of the Marxist theory of historical progress that had been the official ideology of the Soviet state. When the U.S.S.R. collapsed, so too did the requirement that historical writing acknowledge international communism as the condition toward which the arc of history was bending. Turchin dropped ideology altogether, he says: Rather than bending toward progress, the arc in his view bends all the way back on itself, in a never-­ending loop of boom and bust. This puts him at odds with American historians, many of whom harbor an unspoken faith that liberal democracy is the end state of all history.

Writing history in this sweeping, cyclical way is easier if you are trained outside the field. “If you look at who is doing these megahistories, more often than not, it’s not actual historians,” Walter Scheidel, an actual historian at Stanford, told me. (Scheidel, whose books span millennia, takes Turchin’s work seriously and has even co-written a paper with him.) Instead they come from scientific fields where these taboos do not dominate. The genre’s most famous book, Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997), beheld 13,000 years of human history in a single volume. Its author, Jared Diamond, spent the first half of his career as one of the world’s foremost experts on the physiology of the gall­bladder. Steven Pinker, a cognitive psychologist who studies how children acquire parts of speech, has written a megahistory about the decline of violence across thousands of years, and about human flourishing since the Enlightenment. Most historians I asked about these men—and for some reason megahistory is nearly always a male pursuit—used terms like laughingstock and patently tendentious to describe them.

Pinker retorts that historians are resentful of the attention “disciplinary carpet­baggers” like himself have received for applying scientific methods to the humanities and coming up with conclusions that had eluded the old methods. He is skeptical of Turchin’s claims about historical cycles, but he believes in data-driven historical inquiry. “Given the noisiness of human behavior and the prevalence of cognitive biases, it’s easy to delude oneself about a historical period or trend by picking whichever event suits one’s narrative,” he says. The only answer is to use large data sets. Pinker thanks traditional historians for their work collating these data sets; he told me in an email that they “deserve extraordinary admiration for their original research (‘brushing the mouse shit off moldy court records in the basement of town halls,’ as one historian put it to me).” He calls not for surrender but for a truce. “There’s no reason that traditional history and data science can’t merge into a cooperative enterprise,” Pinker wrote. “Knowing stuff is hard; we need to use every available tool.”

Guldi, the Southern Methodist University professor, is one scholar who has embraced tools previously scorned by historians. She is a pioneer of data-driven history that considers timescales beyond a human lifetime. Her primary technique is the mining of texts—for example, sifting through the millions and millions of words captured in parliamentary debate in order to understand the history of land use in the final century of the British empire. Guldi may seem a potential recruit to cliodynamics, but her approach to data sets is grounded in the traditional methods of the humanities. She counts the frequency of words, rather than trying to find ways to compare big, fuzzy categories among civilizations. Turchin’s conclusions are only as good as his databases, she told me, and any database that tries to code something as complex as who constitutes a society’s elites—then tries to make like-to-like comparisons across millennia and oceans—will meet with skepticism from traditional historians, who deny that the subject to which they have devoted their lives can be expressed in Excel format. Turchin’s data are also limited to big-­picture characteristics observed over 10,000 years, or about 200 lifetimes. By scientific standards, a sample size of 200 is small, even if it is all humanity has.

Yet 200 lifetimes is at least more ambitious than the average historical purview of only one. And the reward for that ambition—­­in addition to the bragging rights for having potentially explained everything that has ever happened to human beings—includes something every writer wants: an audience. Thinking small rarely gets you quoted in The New York Times. Turchin has not yet attracted the mass audiences of a Diamond, Pinker, or Harari. But he has lured connoisseurs of political catastrophe, journalists and pundits looking for big answers to pressing questions, and true believers in the power of science to conquer uncertainty and improve the world. He has certainly outsold most beetle experts.

If he is right, it is hard to see how history will avoid assimilating his insights—if it can avoid being abolished by them. Privately, some historians have told me they consider the tools he uses powerful, if a little crude. Clio­dynamics is now on a long list of methods that arrived on the scene promising to revolutionize history. Many were fads, but some survived that stage to take their rightful place in an expanding historiographical tool kit. Turchin’s methods have already shown their power. Cliodynamics offers scientific hypotheses, and human history will give us more and more opportunities to check its predictions—­revealing whether Peter Turchin is a Hari Seldon or a mere Nostradamus. For my own sake, there are few thinkers whom I am more eager to see proved wrong.

This article appears in the December 2020 print edition with the headline “The Historian Who Sees the Future.” It was first published online on November 12, 2020.

GRAEME WOOD is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of The Way of the Strangers: Encounters With the Islamic State.

Posted in Academic writing, Writing

Joe Moran: First You Write a Sentence, Pt. 1

This post is a tribute to Joe Moran’s lovely book, First You Write a Sentence.  It’s part of my ongoing series of posts about issues in writing and books on writing.  What I like so much about Moran’s take on the subject is that he not only gives cogent advice for how to write better, but also he provides a stellar model of how to do so with grace and flair.

Moran Book Cover

Let’s start with the elements.

A sentence brings together a noun, which names a thing, with a verb, which says something about that thing. That is all a sentence needs: everything else is optional. If you put the right nouns and verbs in the right slots, the other words fall into place around them.

That sounds easy, but of course it’s not.

Sentences that fail are a dialogue of the deaf. Reading one is like listening to someone in a nightclub over a pounding bassline. You can feel the writer’s hot breath on your cheek but the words are muffled. All you end up with is an earful of broken syntax and spit. The sentence has not tried hard enough to reach the reader, or it has tried too hard and died in the attempt. It could shout at you for eternity and not give up its secrets. These are enduring laments about writing.

Don’t you just love the way he puts this?  I love the “writer’s hot breath” and the “earful of broken syntax and spit.”

Inflected languages, such as German and Latin, don’t rely on word order as much as English does, because the subject and object can be identified by word endings no matter where they appear in the sentence.  Syntax is how English arranges words to make sense.

That neat bit of open-source software, syntax, lets us tap into a vast shared wisdom about how words best join together, and devise word orders that feel right and that make us sound wise. Writing a sentence is a way of withdrawing intelligence for free from this syntactical cashpoint that never runs empty.

Word order gives direction to the sentence, and, at every step along the way, it tightens the reader’s focus toward the end point.

A sentence, as it proceeds, is a gradual paring away of options. Each added word, because of English’s reliance on word order, reduces the writer’s alternatives and narrows the reader’s expectations. Yet even up to the last word the writer has choices and can throw in a curveball. A sentence can begin in one place and end in another galaxy, without breaking a single grammatical rule.

Prose needs to make sense, and syntax guides us how to do this correctly.  But it also wants to sing, at least some of the time.  Music can emerge from any text if the writer develops an ear for it.  

A sentence is more than its meaning. It is a line of words where logic and lyric meet – a piece of both sense and sound, even if that sound is heard only in the head. Things often thought to be peculiar to poetry – metre, rhythm, music – are there in prose as well, or should be. When John Betjeman began a BBC radio talk with the sentence ‘We came to Looe by unimportant lanes’, he must have known it sounded better than ‘We drove to Looe via the minor roads.’ His version is ten syllables with the stress on each second syllable: a perfect iambic pentameter.

Worse than the words being wrongly arranged is putting them in an order that neither moves nor sings. The sentence just limps and wheezes along to its sad end with a tuneless clank. When the writer has a tin ear for the sound of a sentence then the reader knows, just as when she hears flat or pitchy singing, that something is wrong, even if she can’t quite say why.

The need to make your sentences sing often seems unattainable, and it can’t be forced.  So it’s reassuring to learn that writing is an acquired skill rather than  something you’re born with.  Your sentences may not often be things of beauty, but they can be reliably clear and convincing.  After all, writing is not just how we express our ideas; it’s how we develop our ideas.  The clarity is not a preexisting condition but a consequence of writing.

Writing, Kurt Vonnegut once said, allows ‘mediocre people who are patient and industrious to revise their stupidity, to edit themselves into something like intelligence’.

But one of the hardest lessons to learn about writing is that no one who reads your prose knows what you intended to say if you didn’t say it clearly enough for them to understand.

This, according to Verlyn Klinkenborg, is the lesson a writer learns most reluctantly of all. ‘It’s necessary to write as if your sentences will be orphaned, because they will be,’ he writes. ‘When called to the stand in the court of meaning, your sentences will get no coaching from you. They’ll say exactly what their words say, and if that makes you look ridiculous or confused, guess what?’ Once our sentences are written and sent out into the world to be read, they are on their own. Most of us cling to a residual belief that we will still be there, hovering over the reader as she reads, to explain, when she stumbles over our words, what we really meant. We won’t.

But our sentences are not quite orphans. What they really are is children with parents who love them but who can do nothing to help them.

I’ll be picking up more insights from Moran’s book in a later post. Stay tuned. Better yet, read the book yourself.

Posted in Course Syllabus, Higher Education, History of education, History of Higher Education Class

Class on History of Higher Education in the US

This post contains all of the material for the class on the History of Higher Education in the US that I taught for at the Stanford Graduate School of Education for the last 15 years.  In retirement I wanted to make the course available on the internet to anyone who is interested.  If you are a college teacher, feel free to use any of it in whole or part.  If you are a student or a group of students, you can work your way through the class on your own at your own pace.  Any benefits that accrue are purely intrinsic, since no one will get college credits.  But that also means you’re free to pursue the parts of the class that you want and you don’t have any requirements or papers.  How great is that.

I’m posting the full syllabus below.  But it would be more useful to get it as a Word document through this link.  Feel free to share it with anyone you like.

All of the course materials except three required books are embedded in the syllabus through hyperlinks to a Google drive.  For each week, the syllabus includes a link to tips for approaching the readings, links to the PDFs of the readings, and a link to the slides for that week’s class.  Slides also include links to additional sources.  So the syllabus is all that is needed to gain access to the full class.

I hope you find this useful.

History of Higher Education in the U.S.

David Labaree

Twitter: @Dlabaree

Blog: https://davidlabaree.com/

Course Description

This course provides an introductory overview of the history of higher education in the United States.  We will start with Perkin’s account of the world history of the university, and two chapters from my book about the role of the market in shaping the history of American higher education and the pressure from consumers to have college provide both social access and social advantage.  In week two, we examine an overview of the history of American college and university in the 18th and 19th centuries from John Thelin, and my chapter on the emerging nature of the college system.  In week three, we focus on the rise of the university in the latter part of the 19th century using two more chapters from Thelin, and my own chapter on the subject.  In week four, we read a series of papers around the issue of access to higher education, showing how colleges for many years sought to repel or redirect the college aspirations of women, blacks, and Jews.  In week five, we examine the history of professional education, with special attention to schools of business, education, and medicine.  In week six, we read several chapters from Donald Levine’s book about the rise of mass higher education after World War I, my piece about the rise of community colleges, and more from Thelin.  In week seven, we look at the surge of higher ed enrollments after World War II, drawing on pieces by Rebecca Lowen, Roger Geiger, Thelin, and Labaree.  In week eight, we look at the broadly accessible full-service regional state university, drawing on Alden Dunham, Thelin, Lohmann, and my chapter on the relationship between the public and private sector.  In week nine, we read a selection of chapters from Jerome Karabel’s book about the struggle by elite universities to stay on top of a dynamic and expanding system of higher education.  And in week 10, we step back and try to get a fix on the evolved nature of the American system of higher education, drawing on work by Mitchell Stevens and the concluding chapters of my book.

Like every course, this one is not a neutral survey of all possible perspectives on the domain identified by the course title; like every course, this one has a point of view.  This point of view comes through in my book manuscript that we’ll be reading in the course.  Let me give you an idea of the kind of approach I will be taking.

The American system of higher education is an anomaly.  In the twentieth century it surged past its European forebears to become the dominant system in the world – with more money, talent, scholarly esteem, and institutional influence than any of the systems that served as its models.  By all rights, this never should have happened.  Its origins were remarkably humble: a loose assortment of parochial nineteenth-century liberal-arts colleges, which emerged in the pursuit of sectarian expansion and civic boosterism more than scholarly distinction.  These colleges had no academic credibility, no reliable source of students, and no steady funding.  Yet these weaknesses of the American system in the nineteenth century turned out to be strengths in the twentieth.  In the absence of strong funding and central control, individual colleges had to learn how to survive and thrive in a highly competitive market, in which they needed to rely on student tuition and alumni donations and had to develop a mode of governance that would position them to pursue any opportunity and cultivate any source of patronage.  As a result, American colleges developed into an emergent system of higher education that was lean, adaptable, autonomous, consumer-sensitive, self-supporting, and radically decentralized.  This put the system in a strong position to expand and prosper when, before the turn of the twentieth century, it finally got what it was most grievously lacking:  a surge of academic credibility (when it assumed the mantle of scientific research) and a surge of student enrollments (when it became the pipeline to the middle class).  This course is an effort to understand how a system that started out so badly turned out so well – and how its apparently unworkable structure is precisely what makes the system work.

That’s an overview of the kind of argument I will be making about the history of higher education.  But you should feel free to construct your own, rejecting mine in part or in whole.  The point of this class, like any class, is to encourage you to try on a variety of perspectives as part of the process of developing your own working conceptual framework for understanding the world.  I hope you will enjoy the ride.

Readings

Books:  We will be reading the following books:

Thelin, John R. (2011). A history of American higher education, 2nd ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Labaree, David F. (2017). A perfect mess: The unlikely ascendancy of American higher education.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Karabel, Jerome. (2005). The chosen: The hidden history of admission and exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Supplementary Resources:  There is a terrific online archive of primary and secondary readings on higher education, which is a supplement to The History of Higher Education, 3rd ed., published by the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE): http://www.pearsoncustom.com/mi/msu_ashe/.

Course Outline

Below are the topics we will cover, week by week, with the readings for each week.

Week 1

Introduction to course

Tips for week 1 readings

Labaree, David F. (2015). A system without a plan: Elements of the American model of higher education.  Chapter 1 in A perfect mess: The unlikely ascendancy of American higher education.

Labaree, David F. (2015). Balancing access and advantage.  Chapter 5 in A perfect mess: The unlikely ascendancy of American higher education,

Perkin, Harold. (1997). History of universities. In Lester F. Goodchild and Harold S. Wechsler (Eds.), ASHE reader on the history of higher education, 2nd ed. (pp. 3-32). Boston: Pearson Custom Publishing.

Class slides for week 1

Week 2

Overview of the Early History of Higher Education in the U.S.

Tips for week 2 readings

Thelin, John R. (2011). A history of American higher education, 2nd ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press (introductory essay and chapters 1-3).

Labaree, David F. (2015). Unpromising roots:  The ragtag college system in the nineteenth century.  Chapter 2 in A perfect mess: The unlikely ascendancy of American higher education.

Class slides for week 2

Week 3

Roots of the Growth of the University in the Late 19th and Early 20th Century

Thursday 4/19

Tips for week 3 readings

Thelin, John R. (2011). A history of American higher education, 2nd ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press (chapters 4-5).

Labaree, David F. (2015). Adding the pinnacle and keeping the base: The graduate school crowns the system, 1880-1910.  Chapter 3 in A perfect mess: The unlikely ascendancy of American higher education,

Labaree, David F. (1995).  Foreword (to book by Brown, David K. (1995). Degrees of control: A sociology of educational expansion and occupational credentialism. New York: Teachers College Press).

Class slides for week 3

 Week 4

Educating and Not Educating the Other:  Blacks, Women, and Jews

Tips for week 4 readings

Wechsler, Harold S. (1997).  An academic Gresham’s law: Group repulsion as a theme in American higher education. In Lester F. Goodchild and Harold S. Wechsler (Eds.), ASHE reader on the history of higher education, 2nd ed. (pp. 416-431). Boston: Pearson Custom Publishing.

Anderson, James D. (1997).  Training the apostles of liberal culture: Black higher education, 1900-1935. In Lester F. Goodchild and Harold S. Wechsler (Eds.), ASHE reader on the history of higher education, 2nd ed. (pp. 432-458). Boston: Pearson Custom Publishing.

Gordon, Lynn D. (1997).  From seminary to university: An overview of women’s higher education, 1870-1920. In Lester F. Goodchild and Harold S. Wechsler (Eds.), ASHE reader on the history of higher education, 2nd ed. (pp. 473-498). Boston: Pearson Custom Publishing.

Class slides for week 4

Week 5

History of Professional Education

Tips for week 5 readings

Brubacher, John S. and Rudy, Willis. (1997). Professional education. In Lester F. Goodchild and Harold S. Wechsler (Eds.), ASHE reader on the history of higher education, 2nd ed. (pp. 379-393). Boston: Pearson Custom Publishing.

Bledstein, Burton J. (1976). The culture of professionalism. In The culture of professionalism: The middle class and the development of higher education in America (pp. 80-128). New York:  W. W. Norton.

Labaree, David F. (2015). Mutual subversion: The liberal and the professional. Chapter 4 in A perfect mess: The unlikely ascendancy of American higher education,

Starr, Paul. (1984). Transformation of the medical school. In Social transformation of American medicine (pp. 112-127). New York: Basic.

Class slides for week 5

Week 6

Emergence of Mass Higher Education

Tips for week 6 readings

Levine, Donald O. (1986).  The American college and the culture of aspiration, 1915-1940. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.  Read introduction and chapters 3, 4, and 8.

Thelin, John R. (2011). A history of American higher education, 2nd ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press (chapter 6).

Labaree, David F. (1997). The rise of the community college: Markets and the limits of educational opportunity.  In How to succeed in school without really learning:  The credentials race in American education (chapter 8, pp. 190-222). New Haven: Yale University Press.

Class slides for week 6

Week 7

The Huge Surge of Higher Education Expansion after World War II

Tips for week 7 readings

Thelin, John R. (2011). A history of American higher education, 2nd ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press (chapter 7).

Geiger, Roger. (2004). University advancement from the postwar era to the 1960s. In Research and relevant knowledge: American research universities since World War II (chapter 5, pp. 117-156).  Read the first half of the chapter, which focuses on the rise of Stanford.

Lowen, Rebecca S. (1997). Creating the cold war university: The transformation of Stanford. Berkeley: University of California Press.  Introduction and Chapters 5 and 6.

Labaree, David F. (2015). Learning to love the bomb: America’s brief cold-war fling with the university as a public good. Chapter 7 in A perfect mess: The unlikely ascendancy of American higher education.

Class slides for week 7

Week 8

Populist, Practical, and Elite:  The Diversity and Evolved Institutional Character of the Full-Service American University

Tips for week 8 readings

Thelin, John R. (2011). A history of American higher education, 2nd ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press (chapter 8).

Dunham, Edgar Alden. (1969). Colleges of the forgotten Americans: A profile of state colleges and universities. New York: McGraw Hill (introduction, chapters 1-2).

Lohmann, Suzanne. (2006). The public research university as a complex adaptive system. Unpublished paper, University of California, Los Angeles.

Labaree, David F. (2015). Private advantage, public impact. Chapter 6 in A perfect mess: The unlikely ascendancy of American higher education.

Class slides for week 8

Week 9

The Struggle by Elite Universities to Stay on Top

Tips for week 9 readings

Karabel, Jerome. (2005). The chosen: The hidden history of admission and exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.  Read introduction and chapters 2, 4, 9, 12, 13, 17, and 18.

Class slides for week 9

Week 10

Conclusions about the American System of Higher Education

Tips for week 10 readings

Stevens, Mitchell L., Armstrong, Elizabeth A., & Arum, Richard. (2008). Sieve, incubator, temple, hub: Empirical and theoretical advances in the sociology of higher education. Annual Review of Sociology, 34 (127-151).

Labaree, David F. (2015). Upstairs, downstairs: Relations between the tiers of the system. Chapter 8 in A perfect mess: The unlikely ascendancy of American higher education,

Labaree, David F. (2015). A perfect mess. Chapter 9 in A perfect mess: The unlikely ascendancy of American higher education.

Class slides for week 10

Guidelines for Critical Reading

Whenever you set out to do a critical reading of a particular text (a book, article, speech, proposal, conference paper), you need to use the following questions as a framework to guide you as you read:

  1. What’s the point? This is the analysis/interpretation issue: what is the author’s angle?
  2. What’s new? This is the value-added issue: What does the author contribute that we don’t already know?
  3. Who says? This is the validity issue: On what (data, literature) are the claims based?
  4. Who cares? This is the significance issue, the most important issue of all, the one that subsumes all the others: Is this work worth doing?  Is the text worth reading?  Does it contribute something important?

Guidelines for Analytical Writing

             In writing papers for this (or any) course, keep in mind the following points.  They apply in particular to the longer papers, but most of the same concerns apply to critical reaction papers as well.

  1. Pick an important issue: Make sure that your analysis meets the “so what” test. Why should anyone care about this topic, anyway?  Pick an issue or issues that matters and that you really care about.
  1. Keep focused: Don’t lose track of the point you are trying to make and make sure the reader knows where you are heading and why.
  1. Aim for clarity: Don’t assume that the reader knows what you’re talking about; it’s your job to make your points clearly.  In part this means keeping focused and avoiding distracting clutter.  But in part it means that you need to make more than elliptical references to concepts and sources or to professional experience.  When referring to readings (from the course or elsewhere), explain who said what and why this point is pertinent to the issue at hand.  When drawing on your own experiences or observations, set the context so the reader can understand what you mean.  Proceed as though you were writing for an educated person who is neither a member of this class nor a professional colleague, someone who has not read the material you are referring to.
  1. Provide analysis: A good paper is more than a catalogue of facts, concepts, experiences, or references; it is more than a description of the content of a set of readings; it is more than an expression of your educational values or an announcement of your prescription for what ails education.  A good paper is a logical and coherent analysis of the issues raised within your chosen area of focus.  This means that your paper should aim to explain rather than describe.  If you give examples, be sure to tell the reader what they mean in the context of your analysis.  Make sure the reader understands the connection between the various points in your paper.
  1. Provide depth, insight, and connections: The best papers are ones that go beyond making obvious points, superficial comparisons, and simplistic assertions.  They dig below the surface of the issue at hand, demonstrating a deeper level of understanding and an ability to make interesting connections.
  1. Support your analysis with evidence: You need to do more than simply state your ideas, however informed and useful these may be.  You also need to provide evidence that reassures the reader that you know what you are talking about, thus providing a foundation for your argument.  Evidence comes in part from the academic literature, whether encountered in this course or elsewhere.  Evidence can also come from your own experience.  Remember that you are trying to accomplish two things with the use of evidence.  First, you are saying that it is not just you making this assertion but that authoritative sources and solid evidence back you up.  Second, you are supplying a degree of specificity and detail, which helps to flesh out an otherwise skeletal argument.
  1. Draw on course materials (this applies primarily to reaction papers, not the final paper). Your paper should give evidence that you are taking this course.  You do not need to agree with any of the readings or presentations, but your paper should show you have considered the course materials thoughtfully.
  1. Recognize complexity and acknowledge multiple viewpoints. The issues in the history of American education are not simple, and your paper should not propose simple solutions to complex problems. It should not reduce issues to either/or, black/white, good/bad.  Your paper should give evidence that you understand and appreciate more than one perspective on an issue.  This does not mean you should be wishy-washy.  Instead, you should aim to make a clear point by showing that you have considered alternate views.
  1. Challenge assumptions. The paper should show that you have learned something by doing this paper. There should be evidence that you have been open to changing your mind.
  1. Do not overuse quotation: In a short paper, long quotations (more than a sentence or two in length) are generally not appropriate.  Even in longer papers, quotations should be used sparingly unless they constitute a primary form of data for your analysis.  In general, your paper is more effective if written primarily in your own words, using ideas from the literature but framing them in your own way in order to serve your own analytical purposes.  However, selective use of quotations can be very useful as a way of capturing the author’s tone or conveying a particularly aptly phrased point.
  1. Cite your sources: You need to identify for the reader where particular ideas or examples come from.  This can be done through in-text citation:  Give the author’s last name, publication year, and (in the case of quotations) page number in parentheses at the end of the sentence or paragraph where the idea is presented — e.g., (Kliebard, 1986, p. 22); provide the full citations in a list of references at the end of the paper.  You can also identify sources with footnotes or endnotes:  Give the full citation for the first reference to a text and a short citation for subsequent citations to the same text.  (For critical reaction papers, you only need to give the short cite for items from the course reading; other sources require full citations.)  Note that citing a source is not sufficient to fulfill the requirement to provide evidence for your argument.  As spelled out in #6 above, you need to transmit to the reader some of the substance of what appears in the source cited, so the reader can understand the connection with the point you are making and can have some meat to chew on.  The best analytical writing provides a real feel for the material and not just a list of assertions and citations.  Depth, insight, and connections count for more than a superficial collection of glancing references.  In other words, don’t just mention an array of sources without drawing substantive points and examples from these sources; and don’t draw on ideas from such sources without identifying the ones you used.
  1. Take care in the quality of your prose: A paper that is written in a clear and effective style makes a more convincing argument than one written in a murky manner, even when both writers start with the same basic understanding of the issues.  However, writing that is confusing usually signals confusion in a person’s thinking.  After all, one key purpose of writing is to put down your ideas in a way that permits you and others to reflect on them critically, to see if they stand up to analysis.  So you should take the time to reflect on your own ideas on paper and revise them as needed.  You may want to take advantage of the opportunity in this course to submit a draft of the final paper, revise it in light of comments, and then resubmit the revised version.  This, after all, is the way writers normally proceed.  Outside of the artificial world of the classroom, writers never turn in their first draft as their final statement on a subject.
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